Photos: Ray Ally
The killing last week of two young women police constables has reignited the question of whether British police should be armed.
The officers were responding to what they thought was a routine low risk burglary callout, when they were ambushed in a hail of bullets and grenade attack. It’s a tragic story, but in that situation it’s unlikely that being armed would of saved their lives, as the surprise attack was over in seconds.
The British police have arguably the best reputation of any police force around the world. One of the cornerstones of its strong brand image is the fact they are not armed. They are one of the few forces where regular police do not carry guns. Interestingly, one of the others are the police here in China.
Opinion is divided in the UK, but the majority of the general public and the police forces still agree that the “British bobby” should not be armed. Sir Peter Fahy the police chief of Manchester, where the two constables were shot, said his force still believed “passionately” that police should not be armed and stated:
“We know from the experience in America and other countries that having armed officers certainly does not mean, sadly, that police officers do not end up getting shot.”
The main reasons for not arming police are historical and cultural, dating back to the establishment of the Metropolitan police in 1829. It was the world’s first police force set up by the conservative home secretary, Sir Robert Peel. They were dressed in blue uniforms and unarmed except for a wooden truncheon, to differentiate them from the regular army.
At that time the army was used to quell public protests and street demonstrations often with violent and bloody means. So people were initially suspect of the police, but their primary role was the protection of the public, not as an instrument of the state. Their guiding principle of “policing by consent” continues to day, which is why people in the UK generally hold the police in high regards.
Peel believed the key to effective policing was to be visible, having officers walking the streets and getting out into communities. Building relationships with the public through mutual trust, respect and co-operation. This he stated was the foundation of good policing, focusing on the their basic mission of “preventing crime and disorder”. He famously quoted:
“the police are the people and the people are the police”
While the unarmed bobby on the beat is still relevant today as it was in the 1800s. There is also a need for highly trained specialist armed police. These officers are deployed at high-risk security venues like airports and events that could be targeted by terrorists. They also respond to crime incidents where suspects are thought to be armed and dangerous.
At the recent Olympics games in London I witnessed the two different types of police on duty; the regular bobby and the SCO19 specialist firearms officers. Despite the high professionalism required for each role, they still very approachable and friendly, which is the hallmark of British police.
In today’s modern world, it may seem old fashioned, quaint or even a weakness that our police do not carry guns. However, carrying a gun does not create a better policeman or make our communities a safer place to live.
I believe because the British bobby’s is unarmed is their greatest strength, which makes them the envy of other countries and the best police brand in the world.