Should the English police carry and use firearms? This essay explores the debate whether the English police carry and use firearms? It is a debate that has been a focal point in the public, policing agency, government and political arenas since the formation of the police. The English police are well known for their ‘unarmed’ tactic of policing and are only a few police forces worldwide that do so. It was this model of policing that Sir Robert Peel tried to distill from when he first formed the Metropolitan Police back in 1829, which as England as a country keeps to its traditions.
However, due to increase in gun crime and terrorist attacks it is perhaps maybe time that the English police force kept up with an ever sophisticated and armed criminal/terrorist. In this essay the main themes I will focus on will be the background of the police, British models of policing, for and against armed response and the level of gun crime in the UK. The term ‘police’ derived from the Greek word ‘politeia’ meaning government or state. ‘Police’ refers to a social institution that most modern societies have to ensure social control.
In modern society there is an ideological assumption that the police are a fundamental part of social control and without them there would be chaos (Reiner 2000, p1), however not every society has existed with a formal police force. The role of the police in its efforts for the control of crime and maintaining order is one that has changed through history and is an area of great debate in their effectiveness and the functions the police have in modern society.
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The police in modern society are called upon routinely to perform a wide range of tasks from public reassurance to terrorism and respond to emergencies, critical incidents and crises, many with an element of social conflict (Grieve et al. 2007, p19). A state run police organisation is a modern form of ‘policing’ (Reiner 2000,p2), however ‘policing’ is a different idea to that of the ‘police’. Understanding the function and role of the police requires consideration to the ideology of policing.
The concept of policing can be defined as ‘the function of maintaining social control in society’ (Reiner 2000, p3). Policing can be carried out by an array of people and techniques of which the modern idea of the police is one. The police as a specialised institution of social control are seen as a product of the division of labour in modern societies and can be distinguished from other types of policing by their ability to use legitimate force.
In modern democracy the police are both the symbolic ‘front’ of the state’s authority and responsible for the protecting individual and collective freedoms (Neyroud & Beckley 2008, p21). In the UK policing is seen to be ‘by consent’ rather than a state run military model, thus its success is dependent on public co-operation and approval than fear (Grieve et. al 2007, p19). The English police force is only a number of police forces in the world were firearms are not routinely carried by all officers.
It has kept in accordance to when they were first formed in 1829 by Sir Robert Peel, after the Metropolitan Police Act was passed by parliament. Upon the forming of on Metropolitan police force (1829), Sir Robert Peel’s intention was that the police’s role was for the prevention of crime. Efforts were made so that the new police did not look like soldiers, where Sir Robert Peel tried to avoid accusations of setting up a continental system of ‘agents’ like the French model of policing.
The police weaponry was limited to a wooden truncheon, though cutlasses were available for emergencies and for patrolling dangerous beats and inspectors and above could carry pocket pistols (Emsley 1996, p26). The decision not to arm the Metropolitan Police in 1829 was intentional. The use of force used by the police was only to the extent necessary to secure observance of the law or to restore order only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient.
The aim was to convey ‘civilian’ status (a citizen in uniform), distancing the police from the military. Sir Robert Peel in his model of the Metropolitan police implemented that the police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
The days of the ‘local bobby on the beat’ and that of a civilian in clothing seemed to be a past time view of the police force by the 1960s. A new system of policing emerged, encouraged by the Home Office, which saw the number of officers on foot and put more into cars. This new system of policing was called ‘unit beat patrol’ (UBP), together with personal radios issued to all officers to enable quicker responses and cover more area (Newburn 2008, p91). This new ystem of policing intended to improve policing and police-community relations, yet it was seen to have the adverse effects. The UBP saw changes not only to the style of policing but also the image, as Chiball (1977) described it: ‘The “British bobby’’ was recast as the tough, dashing, formidable (but still brave and honest) “Crime-Buster” (cited in Newburn 2008, p91). However, the most notably change was the model of policing, it had seemed that the original ‘democratic’ model had been replaced by a ‘military’ model of policing.
A new trend of hard-liner policing of political and industrial conflict emerged as serious disorder develop in England in the 1970s to 1980s. New forces within the police force were developed, specially trained, readily mobile to cope with riots with the formation of The Metropolitan Police Special Patrol Group in 1965. This was a mobile reserve, developed with a paramilitary role in dealing with public order and terrorism (Reiner 2000, p67). All forces produced similar units which were trained in riot control and use of firearms.
The military model of policing was ever present during the miners’ strikes of the 1980s, where the police now using centrally co-ordinated police operations and officers were now routinely using riot shields, helmets with visors and long batons in public disorders and riots. The use of force by the police had reached new levels as police used new tactics to ‘disperse and/or incapacitate’ protestors, outlined from the Tactical Options Manual approved by the Home Secretary in 1983 (Emsley 1996, p184).
Plastic bullets and CS gas were more commonly deployed and even used in public disorder and riots with the showing of a police force more readily and willing to use excessive force against the public. However, it was common for complaints to be made regarding excessive force by the police but only to be dismissed due to the structure of the complaints system and the legitimacy issues in accountability of the police of use of force.
It is evident that the use of force by the police over time has increased and also changed as has the model of policing, tactics, technology and weaponry available to the police. However, what weapons are available to the police and how they use is a topic of public concern and often political controversy. The legal use of force, the Criminal Justice Act 1967 section 3, states the ‘any person may use such force as is a reasonable in the circumstances’ for the lawful purposes. Article 2 of the European Convention amends this provision to equire that the use of lethal force by police officers should be necessary and proportionate (Newburn 2008, p468). With the emergence of guns more readily available and used by the police, it is only necessary that such overseeing bodies like The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) are formed. Established in 1942, the ACPO function is an independent professionally led body with the aim of centralising the development of policing strategies as a whole (Grieve 2007, p27).
In the ‘Manual of Guidance on the Management, Command and Deployment of Armed Officers (2010) the guidelines for using lethal force are as stated in Article 4: ‘Law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, shall, as far as possible, apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of firearms. They may use force and firearms only if other means remain ineffective or without any promise of achieving intended results’…Article 5 states: ‘Exercise and restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and legitimate objective achieved’.
Consequently, in the UK, police officers are given the discretion to determine if the suspect poses a threat to the police officer or the public as PACE does not actually define what is ‘reasonable force’. In the pursuit of these suspects, police officers are given the power to use deadly force through probable cause of harm. The courts decide whether the use of deadly force is justified or not and in some cases, police officers are charged because their use of deadly force is considered to be unjustifiable. Hence, there is a very thin line separating the justification of the use of deadly force from an act that is unjustified.
The ethical and moral dilemma of police officers therefore rests not only on the regulations of their agency but on their analytical and ethical decision. In 2008/09, there were 6,868 authorised firearms officers within the police force which was made up of 136,365 (Home Office, 2010). This is a small minority of police officers who are trained and authorised to use firearms but when considering that the English police are seen as an ‘unarmed’ force, these numbers are quite high. A debate of great concern for the public but also crime agencies and political arenas, is whether English police officers should carry and use firearms?
The increasing use of guns by criminals and gun related deaths to both the public and English police officers has been a catalyst for supporters in the carrying and use of firearms by police officers. The 1960s was seen as the turning point in the arming of police officers as in Shepard’s Bush, London, three plain clothed police officers were shot dead (Newburn 2008, p473). This incident prompted the creation of the Metropolitan Police’s ‘D11’ which trained officers on firearms. However, even with the creation and training of police armed response teams such methods proved inadequate to deal with incidents like the Hungerford massacre.
Michael Ryan became Britain’s first spree killer (Squires & Kennison 2010 p77), when he killed 16 people. The Thames Valley Police Tactical Arms Firearms team was 40 miles away and took an hour and forty minutes to assemble; this resulted in the debate about the effectiveness of having specific armed response teams and not a general armed police force that could deal with situations more effectively and quicker. In outlining the history of the UK police force Neyroud & Beckley (2008) argues that the baton-days prior 1980s was not enough to protect public safety against criminals.
He cites the case of the Hungerford Shootings and the Thames Valley Police Force where an armed man killed two persons and injured one after a random shooting. The police force was heavily criticised because of the length of time it took for the police officers to respond to calls. The police was also criticised because the police use of firearms was largely focused on protecting the safety of the officers and on preventing fatal shootings, instead of focusing on public safety. Since then, the public expectations of the police and the use of force has been a dilemma for the UK police.
Following the shootings, there was a call for more aggressive approach to enforcing the law. Is the use of deadly force justified? For the Thames Valley Police it is justified because it protects not only the police officers but also public security (Neyroud & Beckley, 2008, p253). Security threats cannot be allowed in a society since they affect the confidence of the public on the police. In the terms of consequentialism, shooting a person who is out to massacre innocent is justified because the death of the criminal would mean sparing the lives of many others, restoring the peace and order needed by the society to properly function.
The arming of police officers routinely could be considered a small step, as police officers are routinely armed already in a variety of situations, e. g. at airports and when providing security for political leaders or institutions. Already rapid-response units of armed officers are available to deal with armed criminals, but these need to be specially summoned and authorised which consumes time and lead to being ineffective in the situation. Armed police can be seen to reassure law-abiding citizens at a time when gun-related crime is increasing in most European countries and parts of North America.
Much public opinion holds that something must be done to tackle this. People may feel safer when they see armed police, especially if they perceive them as a response to a heightened risk. Thus, for example, police officers at British airports and places government buildings routinely carry guns after recent terrorist attacks on England. Just as quickly as incidents brought about a feeling of approving by many of the carrying and use of firearms with deaths of police officers and public, it brought about incidents that gave the disapproval.
Having armed police response may have its benefits when dealing with armed and dangerous criminals or terrorist threats; however the problem faced by armed police officers is knowing how much of a threat that suspect really poses and if they are correctly identified as carrying firearms or even the correct suspect. A notably example of these problems faced by armed response police, was the Harry Stanley shooting in 1999. The police received a call that a man believed to be Irish was armed with a shotgun and an armed response team was dispatched to deal with the situation.
Upon arriving at the pub the armed response team shouted to Mr Stanley and as he turned the officers took this action as an aim at them with the suspected gun and in response shot him dead. It was revealed that Harry Stewart was in fact carrying a wooden chair leg and posed no threat at all to police officers or the public. However, it was not only the wrongful killing of Harry Stuart that was scrutinised but the events of the incident told by the police officers as it did not match forensic evidence (Squires & Kennison 2010, p172).
A similar incident again highlighted the problems faced with armed police officers, the shooting of Jeans Charles de Menezes in 2005. Two weeks after the London bombings, Jean Charles de Menezes was followed by a surveillance team who had mistaken him for Hussain Osman, a suspected failed suicide bomber from the previous day. As Jean Charles de Menezes boarded a train at Stockwell train station he was confronted by anti-terrorism officers who shot him seven times, certain that he was a suicide bomber (O’Driscoll 2008, p341).
Initially, a discernible reluctance to accuse the acting officers of any wrongdoing. On the contrary, there was a general acceptance that their actions were both defensible and consistent with Metropolitan Police procedures for dealing with suspected suicide bombers. Viewed in this light, the shooting of Menezes was an unfortunate mistake, but nothing more. The war on terror, it is claimed, presents a novel form of war that necessitates (and therefore legitimates) a robust engagement from the relevant security forces (O’Driscoll 2008, p342).
Yet this simple formulation overlooks the possibility that it was the very conditions of the war on terror that gave rise to the circumstances where such a ‘mistake’ could occur. Police violence, according to Box (1983), tends to increase in proportion to the elite’s fear of disorder, and the more fearful the elite, the more likely they are to tolerate illegal violence against potentially dangerous groups (Belur 2010, p323). Thus, in societies with extremely unequal social structures, such as those in some Latin American countries, the fate of the socially marginal is regarded with indifference by the state and the middle-class public alike.
Even in strong democracies like the United Kingdom, Jefferson (1990) found that dehumanization and demonization of dissident and marginal groups seek to construct an ‘authoritarian consensus’ among the ‘respectable majority’, which allows them and the government to authorize or condone certain coercive measures (cited Belur 2010, p324). For the debate whether English police officers should carry and use firearms, it is important to look at the statistics of gun crime in England as an indication on the severity of the problem for a justification.
There has been a dramatic rise in the ‘street gang’ culture within the UK, characterised by illegal gun ownership and violence (Caddick & Porter 2011, p1). A new wave of gun crime has contributed to the so called ‘gun culture’ that many of the UK’s youths participate in, despite a background of increasingly restrictive legislations and better policy responses. There were 53 fatal police shootings between 1990 and 2011 (Inquest 2011). The figures for fatal shootings might be deemed ‘low’, however the police in England have an international reputation for being ‘unarmed’.
Overall, there were 19,951 police operations in 2008/09 in which a firearm was authorised. The overall level of gun crime in England and Wales is very low – less than 0. 5% of all recorded crime. In 2007/8 there were 9,865 offences in England and Wales in which firearms (excluding air weapons) were reportedly used, a 2% increase on the previous year. In 2007/8 there were 455 firearm offences in which there was a fatal or serious injury, 3% lower than in 2006/07. 6. 8% of all homicides committed during 2007/08 involved the use of firearms, down from 7. 8% in 2006/07 (Home Office (2010).
Sir Robert Peel back in 1829, formed the Metropolitan Police with the aim to convey ‘civilian’ status (a citizen in uniform), distancing the police from the military. Sir Robert Peel in his model of the Metropolitan police implemented that the police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
There have been a number of major changes to the police force as well as in technology and weaponry which is certainly a necessary solution to new problems faced by the police from criminals. However, there is a reason why as early as 1829, English police officers have remained unarmed. Arming the police is an easy way of ignoring the fundamental failures of society. Guns are not a response to crime. What is actually needed is more effort in preventing crime through detective work and policing strategy rather than focussing on responding to it.
Nor does arming the police offer a solution to fundamental socio-political issues which contribute to crime. Routinely arming the police is an uneven response to gun crime, as it will affect some sections of the community more than others. For example, as certain ethnic groups are often associated with particular types of criminality, police use of firearms will damage police credibility within communities which feel that they are the subject of too much police suspicion. Even if the police believe they are carrying weapons in self-defence, others will view it as an aggressive act.
This is a big change, both culturally and practically. The large majority of policemen and women go through their whole career without handling firearms. Even with the special selection measures and intensive training given to the few firearms officers today, mistakes sometimes occur and innocent people are shot, either by mistake because the armed officers are acting on inaccurate information, or because they are bystanders caught in the cross-fire of a shoot-out. Arming all police officers would mean ditching the current stringent selection methods and inevitably result in less training being rovided, so mistakes would become much more common and more people would be wounded or killed. If the English police officer has managed to last from 1829 from its first formation without carrying and using firearms then it does not need them now. The current responses in place to terrorist and armed criminals in place are sufficient; although not perfect by any means it would be a devastating blow for the people of England tradition and the effects costly. There are enough replacements to the use of firearms and those options should be explored. References Belur, J. (2010). Why do Police Use Deadly Force?
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