Enforcer or public servant: What sort of police force do we want?

by Gill Marshall-Andrews on 20-05-2015


A society is defined by its police force. In America the police are armed, guns are ‘normal’, and levels of gun violence are high. In the UK the police are not armed, guns are not ‘normal’ and levels of gun violence are low (and have fallen by almost 50% over the past decade). We must decide what sort of police force we want and not drift, unthinking, into a fully armed force. It is especially perverse that key changes in the deployment of armed police officers are being proposed – not as a result of rising crime but as a direct result of threatened cuts.

Every decade or so there are proposals to fully arm the police. It is argued that times have changed and more criminals and terrorists carry guns so the police should do so too. Now it is being argued that we cannot afford to have highly trained firearms officers waiting around for a gun incident to happen.

But the reality is that we should be thankful that our firearms officers don’t have much to do. It is perverse to respond to that benign situation by arming more of them and thereby bringing more guns into our streets and communities. Not only that. It will not save money. Any extension of armed policing will cost millions to train a larger cohort of officers to the standard of the elite, who must re-qualify for their firearms authorisation twice a year. The standard of competence amongst this vital group of specialists is bound to go down as the financial and social costs escalate and criminals upgrade their weaponry to keep up with the police.

There is extensive evidence from America that police carrying guns are more vulnerable to being ambushed, more likely to be killed and injured themselves, and more likely to kill and injure the public. Nothing erodes public trust and confidence in the police quicker than a police fatal shooting, as both Britain and America have recently found to their cost. Further arming of the police in this country is highly likely to result in more of these, and more damaging incidents such as that in Nottingham in October 2014 when a police automatic weapon was discharged with live ammunition at a public event, injuring a 7-year-old girl.

Police with guns make mistakes now. They will make more mistakes if their numbers increase, the standard of training falls, or they are performing routine duties on the streets.

Gill Marshall-Andrews, Chair of the Gun Control Network, says:

“The best sort of policing is community based and intelligence led. In the UK the public generally trust the police and are willing to provide information and intelligence. The police are respected and not feared, and they are not armed. If officers start attending routine incidents, or worse still patrolling the streets, with guns the public will feel they are in danger when they are not. Our police force becomes more of a paramilitary organisation which in turn attracts a different kind of recruit.

So do we want our police to be enforcers as they are in America, or public servants as they are here? Will we continue with our decent unarmed police force? We will, emphatically, be safer if we do and we should fight for it.”