Blog 184

One thing I have never failed to notice since doing this job is the contrast, when it comes to carrying firearms, between the police in this country and the police overseas.

However, it was only when David Hartley, one of the Assistant Chief Constables, passed me a note about armed police last week that I realised just how stark the contrast is.

Fewer than 5% of British police officers are trained in the use of firearms and only 2% of patrolling officers are armed. Or, putting that the other way round, 98% of officers in this country patrol unarmed. When I speak to friends in the USA about this, they find it almost unbelievable.

It is a remarkable statistic and one that relies on two things. The first is that officers in this country police by consent. By and large, when the police are maintaining law and order in a town centre or an outlying estate or a country village, they can count on the public being supportive. Without that, in so many situations, they might struggle. Which is why they must always work hard to maintain that trust and confidence.

The second is that we are not people who feel the need to arm ourselves. Again, I contrast that with what my friends tell me about America. Although none of them have weapons in the house – at least they have never said so – they all have neighbours that do. Their neighbours argue that this is ‘for protection’.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because this is what scared young people say in this country when challenged about carrying knives. This, I believe, is the principal reason for young people having knives. And, of course, the more young people carry blades, the more other young people become frightened and are tempted to do the same. It becomes a perfect circle that is very hard to break. In turn, this is another very good reason why we need to stop young people feeling they need to carry knives, because, as they get older, they may graduate to carrying firearms.

In the USA, it is hard to stop people wanting to have weapons in the house for similar reasons, and that is why, whenever someone takes a gun into a school or public place and fires at random, it is not seen as a reason for banning weapons but a reason for buying them – a gun for self-protection. The perfect circle where violence breeds violence. And it is the reason that there are 71,600 firearms dealers in the US.

So far, we have been spared that.

Over the past ten years, armed police in England and Wales have responded to an average of 17,323 operations per annum. Some of these have been planned operations, others spontaneous when a situation has developed. On average, officers discharged their weapons on 6.6 occasions per annum – 0.04%. This has resulted in two fatalities per year – 0.01%. Compare that with the American scene. In 2022, the police in America shot dead 1,060 people. In that same year, four states allowed their citizens to carry concealed weapons without a permit in public places.

The impact of firearms on officers and families

We all acknowledge that every life lost is a tragedy – for the deceased, for their family and friends – and also has a huge impact on a community. This is no less true if the death is the result of police action. But what we don’t always understand is the impact this has on the officers themselves and their families if they have to use their weapons and if that results in a fatality. The low numbers of such outcomes in Britain is a tribute to the officers, their training, their professionalism and proper restraint.

Officers use their weapons in other contexts as well, and again, we may give this little thought. I was speaking recently to an officer who is firearms trained. He told me how deeply unpleasant it is to have to put down a dog that is out of control. I doubt whether most of us give this a second thought when we hear that this has had to be carried out; but it too has an impact on the officer.

South Yorkshire police has a number of armed officers. All are volunteers. They have been very carefully selected and highly trained – and they have to keep up this training. There is a national curriculum and the training is licensed by the College of Policing.

South Yorkshire is a large force and we do have armed criminality in the county. For this reason we have a relatively large number of both overt and covert armed officers as compared with some other forces. For obvious reasons they have to be available day and night. In 2023 there were 608 armed deployments, 308 of which were spontaneous, responding to dynamically evolving incidents. But if the public is to be kept safe, we need this number of officers.

Even so, over the past ten years, there have only been a couple of occasions when armed officers have had to discharge their weapons. One of these was in November 2022, when officers had to discharge their weapons at an armed robber in Doncaster who ran towards them, firing shots as he came.

But where those who resort to firearms are known – and building this intelligence goes on all the time – they are frequently visited by the police and their activities disrupted. At the same time, they are invited to change their ways and those that indicate they have had enough of that way of life are put in touch with charities that will help them make the changes.

The discharge of a firearm is also something that is subject to considerable scrutiny and accountability – which is absolutely right.

The lawful ownership of weapons

The situation is complicated by the fact that there are some 8,000 people in the county who hold firearms certificates: they can possess firearms legally – mainly shotguns. Officers need to understand that this is so, especially among the farming and rural communities, and to be clear about the different purposes for which they are legitimately held as opposed to those who have weapons for criminal purposes.

All of the above gives me assurance that our armed officers are essential for our safety, but they are also highly trained and act in the most professional manner. And when others rightly flee from the danger that armed criminality brings, our armed officers will always go towards the danger and do what needs to be done.

They deserve our support.

The sub-postmasters and mistresses scandal

Like millions of others, I have been riveted by the ITV drama, Mr Bates Vs the Post Office, and the appalling scandal it has revealed.

I would see some poetic justice if the CBE that was awarded to the Chief Executive for services to the Post Office, was now taken away as unmerited – and given to Alan Bates. For services to the Post Office.

Stay safe