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Around 90% of police officers in the UK are unarmed. That is a tradition in British policing that is a source of much pride; yet it could be soon to change. Under plans being considered by the National Police Chiefs’ Council, police in rural areas like Devon and Cornwall could soon be allowed to routinely carry guns.
The potential decision comes amid a heightened terror threat and a drive to recruit more counter-terror firearms officers that fell short by about 100.
Police chiefs apparently fear that any armed response for a terror attack taking place out in the sticks would be too slow, with Armed Response Vehicles (ARVs) being unable to reach the area in the same time as they would a major city like London.
The decision is for the particular Chief Constable of each of the 43 local forces across England and Wales. In particular, the police forces of Devon, Cornwall and Dorset are considering the move. This is in spite of the fact that there is no specific terror threat, either currently or in the past, against these areas.
The potential arming of rural police forces in the UK is a step that mirrors, albeit far more moderately, the militarisation of police forces across the planet. Particularly in the US, where police militarisation has essentially taken steroids and it’s not uncommon to see police forces in small towns armed to the teeth with surplus military equipment.
Terror in Truro, bloodshed in Sherborne or ISIS executions in Exeter seem, at best, highly unlikely.
With that in mind, it appears that the idea to arm rural police may throw the principle of policing by consent into doubt. That is, that police should not achieve order through oppressive military might; that they are a function of, and work as part of, the community. Should we begin to see police armed with pocket rockets, a shift in the relationship with law enforcement in this country may be threatened.
Notwithstanding that the police will be highly trained, and notwithstanding the trust we have in our police forces as being almost entirely comprised by considered, intelligent and dutiful individuals; mistakes do happen.
Without a gun, there is a no temptation for a police officer to use a gun. With a gun in the holster, however, the temptation is created. Suddenly, what may be altercations in the daily life of a policeman that may, certainly, pose some danger but for which the police officer must exercise restraint and call on their best skills in de-escalation, become potentially fatal exchanges.
In the USA there were 987 fatal police shootings in 2017 alone. Conversely, in the UK, there have been just 28 fatal police shootings in the 28 years since since 1990. This staggering difference is surely, in large, down to the fact that our police do not carry guns.
Professional policing was invented in this country in 1829 by Sir Robert Peel (hence their moniker, Bobbies!). It is a proud tradition. Yet, with the potential militarisation of our police, it is one that threatens to be undermined.
Having police officers openly carrying guns on the streets of small towns and villages in the UK will change our perspective of them, and could easily change the relationship between citizens and police officers from one of respect, to one of fear.