Unarmed police officers: a thing of the past?

Is the traditionally unarmed British “Bobby” doomed to become a thing of the past? It’s hard to say at present. As a matter of fact, British police chiefs are considering to issue firearms to all frontline officers in England and Wales. After the recent Islamic terror attacks in London and other “incidents” elsewhere, a discussion paper has been drafted on the subject, intended to spark debate at the meeting of the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) scheduled for these days. 

Policeman on duty
British police chiefs are considering to issue firearms to all frontline officers in England and Wales.

A recent poll found that approximately 72 percent of the Britons surveyed thought police should routinely carry firearms: a big jump from the 47 percent of a similar poll in April 2004. 

At present, fewer than 5 percent of police officers in England and Wales carry guns. Out of the 124,000 police officers employed in the two territories, only 5,600 are authorized firearms officers. In the year up to March 2016, police in England and Wales only fired seven bullets in all. And even in London, more than 90 percent of the capital's police officers carry out their daily duties without a gun, just relying on canisters of mace, handcuffs, batons and occasionally stun-guns. 

The idea that policemen shouldn’t be armed is based on the principle of "policing by consent" rather than by force, and many people still think that giving everyday police officers guns sends the “wrong” message to communities.

Many police officers don’t want to be armed, too: a 2006 survey of 47,328 Police Federation members found 82% did not want officers to be routinely armed on duty. But this seems to be related to the fact that officers fear being dragged through years of lengthy investigations in the unlikely event they have to use their guns. They have seen what happens to their colleagues who have had to use lethal force to protect the public. Yet, after years of “war on terror” and in face of increasingly frequent deadly attacks, something is changing. 

In Australia police will be be armed on patrol

The same thing is happening on the other side of the world, in another Commonwealth country: numerous Australian media outlets have reported that the New South Wales legislature is opening up the budget to accommodate patrol rifles within NSW Police Force patrol officers. Officers will be equipped with 5.56x45mm NATO rifles in their vehicles to be used in case of need. The Cafe Lindt hostage crisis in Sydney in late 2014 already showed how under-armed officers are, and events such as the Paris, Berlin and London attacks reinforced this perception of vulnerability when dealing with an active, barricaded shooter or a truck running over the crowd.