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Friday, November 18, 2005


Arming the police: rapid response

There have been just a few hours since the shooting of a police officer in Bradford and we have already had calls for the police to be armed. On the 10 O’clock News tonight the BBC presented a set of misleading figures. They provided us with the number of police officers killed on duty over the past few years. In the context of the instant debate that was already underway, the presentation of these figures contained the implied suggestion that had the police been armed these deaths would not have occurred, or their numbers would have been reduced. Is this the case?

Having a gun does not stop you being shot, stabbed or run down by a car. And this is part of the problem with presenting those statistics. How would a gun save the life of police officers killed when their car is rammed? How would they protect the police officer killed when an arrested suspect slips free and stabs the officer at close quarters? Is it the case that simply inserting a holstered gun into these scenarios and running them as counterfactuals would have saved any of these officers? I doubt that, considered on the basis of these scenarios, armed police would, in themselves, change the existing outcomes.

But any argument that suggests that by giving all our police officers guns we will reduce the rate of police deaths is not, if it is serious, an argument that suggests the outcome of existing individual scenarios would have been altered. If it is serious it is an argument that by arming the police aspects of our policing and public culture will change. And realising this we should be wary of those who use the example of individual cases as emotive ammunition to load the guns of the police.

Being called to a robbery in which there was no prior knowledge on the part of the police that the robbers were armed, how would armed police have prevented the death of the police officer tonight? Presumably, the police would have approached with guns drawn. So far so good, in so much as we are only considering this existing individual scenario. But that is quite simply the wrong approach. What of all the scenarios where the police are called to other events and occurrences? Shall the police approach all their calls with guns drawn? How ready should they be to shoot? If they do not have their weapons in hand are not ready to shoot on suspicion then it is difficult to see how many of these tragic cases could have been avoided. More, we know that even when the only police officers to be armed are extremely well-trained, when they are specifically chosen for the role and when the order to fire passes through a highly regulated chain of command terrible mistakes (at best) are made with alarming regularity.

But that is not all. Not only will we have the police shooting people without the oversight that accompanies the discharge of firearms in contemporary Britain; an effective extra-judicial death penalty distributed on ‘sus’. Perhaps well-founded ‘sus’, but ‘sus’ all the same. No, there is more. There may well be a ramping up of the level of armed criminals. And then what? Are the police safer? Are we all safer?

Abel, in Iain Banks’ A Song of Stone says; “guns have many uses, multifarious effects. Perhaps they alter minds as well as anatomies… Do they determine more than those who fire them?”

A couple years ago I was listening to Milt Rosenberg’s Extension 720, an interview program that covers a wide number of subjects at the level you would expect from a University of Chicago professor. He had four retired policeman on with well over 20 years service each. Milt asks if you ever shot at someone. Three answer no and say it seldom happens. The fourth says she did in her first week on job. She tells the story. She and her training officer were handling a domestic incident when someone jumps out of a doorway with a gun and takes aim. She fired first. One second before the guy jumped out she would not have thought she needed to use her weapon. If she hadn’t her son would have been an orphan. She spent the next week with internal affairs proving she was justified in shooting.

Between eighty + years of service there was one incident and counting their friends who never had an incident it was even less frequent.

Why should police be armed? If you expect them to go into places where there is a real danger they might be killed, you have a duty to give them the means of self-defense. I is not really the statistics argument you point out, it is the simple moral obligation. At the practical level the police will be marginally less willing to go into dubious siturations, denying police protection to those who most likely need it the most. Should the Police in Britain be armed? It depends on the risk they face, on which I’m sure you know more than I do. On the other hand if you do arm police, the training and monitoring standards need to be comprehensive. One of the reasons for the weeklong session with internal affairs is to make it such an ordeal no one would want to shoot their weapon.
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