Experts question whether more British police should carry guns after deadly terror attacks

Police stand guard on Ripple Road in east London, where officers have conducted raids after Saturday's deadly terror attack in the capital, Monday June 5, 2017. London police have raided two addresses and detained "a number" of people suspected of some connection to the Saturday night car attack and knife rampage on London Bridge. (John Stillwell/PA via AP)

Police were at the scene of the deadly terror attack on London Bridge within two minutes of receiving the first call. In eight minutes, armed officers had shot dead all three attackers in the Borough Market area.

Seven people were killed in the weekend terror attack and 48 injured, including a police officer armed only with a baton who tried to fight off an attacker wielding a long hunting knife.

The incident, being described as eight minutes of terror, raises questions about the long-standing practice throughout Great Britain of having only specially armed police units. As lone-wolf terrorists use low-technology tactics to target civilians more frequently, should the U.K. consider providing all police officers with guns?

There are clear trade-offs involved, including whether the people of Britain believe it is worth reshaping the country's traditionally unarmed police force to be able to rapidly respond to potential terrorist incidents.

Following the Saturday attack, British Prime Minister Theresa May faced harsh criticism, specifically for overseeing deep cuts to police around the country. Over the past six years, Britain has reduced the number of Authorized Firearms Officers, the police forces who have the training and authority to shoot a suspect, by more than 19 percent. In that same period, terrorist attacks have been on the rise throughout Europe.

The trend in cuts began to reverse following the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, with the National Police Chiefs' Council has confirmed plans to train and recruit an additional 1,500 firearms officers by 2018. But some experts suggest the numbers may still be inadequate to handle the growing threat of terrorism.

Jim Bueermann is a retired police chief and the president of the Police Foundation, a U.S.-based non-partisan group that focuses on innovations and improvements in policing. He argues that response time is a major issue that should be weighed into any consideration of additional armed police.

"In the United States, if the same incident had occurred, the attackers probably would have been shot by the police much sooner," he said of the Saturday attack. "Therefore, I think there's an argument to be made that more innocent lives would have either been saved or fewer people would have been injured because the first responders in the U.S. are armed."

According to reports, police officers arrived on the scene within two minutes of the first call regarding the ramming incident on London Bridge. It took an additional six minutes before the three suspects were shot.

"When you drill down and look at this as a timeline it's the six minutes that are important," Buerrmann noted. If the police who had first contact with the attackers been armed, could they have stopped or reduced the number of assaults?

The Saturday attack bore similarities to the March 22 incident on the Westminster Bridge and in front of the Parliament. In that incident, the attacker used his car to ram and kill 20 civilians, then jumped out of his car to stab two police officers, killing one unarmed officer before he was shot.

"In these incidents, it's about stopping them as fast as you can, and that almost always means you have to shoot them," Bueermann explained. The longer it takes for police to incapacitate the attacker, the more innocent people will be hurt.

The British people will have to figure out whether their police officers have the right tools to respond to those incidents, he said. "The answer to them right now is no they don't."

The idea of an unarmed police officer is foreign to most Americans, but it has been the standard of community policing in Britain since the 19th century. Patrol officers rely on deescalation tactics and non-lethal weapons to reinstate order. When a situation warrants it, special units are called in with officers trained extensively in the use lethal force.

While many officers in the U.K. will argue that they do not need lethal weapons for their routine activities, the recent attacks have caused some law enforcement officials to change their views on carrying a gun.

In February 2017, London's Metropolitan Police Federation surveyed 11,000 officers and found that slightly more than a quarter (26 percent) said they believe all police officers "should be routinely armed." More than half of the officers said they would be prepared to carry a gun if the British government made that decision. Still, 12 percent of officers said they would not under any circumstances carry a firearm on duty.

In a 2006 nationwide survey, 82 percent of officers said they did not want police to be armed.

The Metropolitan Police have stressed their position that "about 92 percent" of police are unarmed, with "highly trained specialist units" conducting armed policing. "There is no plan to seek to change this."

The latest statistics suggest officers' "ambivalence" about arming themselves, said Paul Hirschfield, professor of sociology at Rutgers University.

"There's a real trade-off," he explained. Officers potentially risk losing public confidence and respect as unarmed public servants keeping the peace by arming themselves. But at the same time, they could be "better prepared" to more quickly diffuse a terrorist incident or protect themselves from harm.

Ultimately, a compromise might be found in increasing the numbers of armed and trained officers, or at least reversing the recent years' trends in cuts to the force. "I can certainly understand the need to expand the number of armed police officer so we can see rapid deployment and rapid responses like we saw in the last attacks," Hirschfield said.

While guns can be used effectively by law enforcement in some situations, armed police would not have been able to prevent the suicide bombing in Manchester, and in incidents involving a large number of civilians, officers risk accidentally shooting and killing innocent bystanders.

American University professor of justice and criminology Richard Bennett argued that arming British police "would have no effect upon the outcome" adding that introducing more guns into the British police forces "is not going to make the community more secure."

In Britain, "they take the use of deadly force very seriously," he explained, with limitations on firearms that are unheard of in the United States.

"A police officer has to account for every shot fired," Bennett said. "Each shot is planned, prepared and justified." Officers who cannot justify their use of deadly force risk being charged with a person's wrongful death.

Armed police officers also undergo training every three months and are required to have served for ten years.

British Home Office statistics support the strict standards for armed police. In the entire year between March 2015 and March 2016, police officers discharged their weapons only seven times. Five people were fatally shot in that period. The response to the Saturday attack in Borough Market was described by Metropolitan police as "unprecedented" when eight officers fired 50 bullets.

An American bystander was accidentally shot in the head by a stray bullet. Authorities expect the individual will survive.

The U.K. standard for policing is worlds away from the United States, where police shot and killed an average of three people per day in 2016, according to a study by the Washington Post.

American policing "could benefit from some of the training and perspective" reflecting in the British model, Bueermann acknowledged. But at the same time, it is in the interest of public safety for the U.K. to reconsider their approach to policing.

The rise in lone-wolf terrorist attacks using easily accessible weapons like knives or cars appears to be on the rise in Europe, and it is something that American law enforcement "should pay very close attention to," Bueermann stressed.

"As long as they experience these kinds of attacks, I think that not increasing the number of officers in areas that are heavily traveled by tourists or that are very popular night spots, not having officers that are armed is in fact putting [Britons] more at risk," Bueermann concluded.

That doesn't mean arming every officer, he emphasized. It means providing the right tools to police who are patrolling high risk areas. "They may be able to attack a small number of people, but officers will be able to intervene and stop them much more quickly."

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