Crispin Black: It's time the army relieved the police of their guns

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The Independent Online

We should not be over-sentimental about the sad death of Mark Saunders at the hands of police marksmen in May 2008. He started it. The police were responding to a situation entirely of Mr Saunders' creation. And we should remember that his drunken shotgun rampage could have killed or maimed an innocent victim. Luckily, the daughter of his close neighbours, the Hummel family, was away at school when he blasted her bedroom window. And when Mrs Hummel took police to show them the damage, he fired again, narrowly missing an armed policeman.

Yet it is hard not to feel that killing Saunders was unnecessary. Once the police had cordoned off the area and taken the neighbours to safety, Mr Saunders posed no threat to anyone but himself. He was armed with a Beretta shotgun, dangerous at close quarters, but with a maximum range of only 40 yards.

The police point out that they respond to thousands of firearms incidents a year, the vast majority of which end without injury to the public. But, as has been rehearsed over the last few days, the Markham Square siege is not an isolated incident.

Communications seem to have broken down. The police firearms teams and negotiating teams do not appear to have talked to each other. There was no basic coordination between them. Indeed, at 9.32pm when Saunders was hit by five bullets as he leaned out of the window, he was trying to tell negotiators that he could not hear them on the telephone because of the noise from a police helicopter hovering on the orders of the firearms squad.

And once again the basic procedures that underpin the way police deal with these situations seem in defiance of common sense. The police rules on guns are contained in six different documents running to over 300 jargon-riddled pages. The army in Northern Ireland managed to get the basic rules of when you could kill on one side of a "yellow card" that could fit in your top pocket. The coroner Dr Knapman was right to tell the Home Secretary that they need "simplifying urgently". And perhaps oddest of all, Mrs Saunders was not allowed to speak to her husband. It is true that after saying goodbye to close relatives, individuals like Saunders have renewed their rampages or killed themselves. But given that there were no hostages or bombs, it should have been worth a try.

As if that weren't enough, once again the stock figure of the incompetent senior policeman emerges. It was everyone's bad luck that the senior officer in charge that day, the Gold Commander, was the corrupt and now imprisoned Ali Dizaei.

It is a long-standing military practice that if a soldier repeatedly handles a weapon negligently or recklessly it is unloaded and removed from him at the first opportunity. I wonder if we have not reached that point with the police. We should seriously consider transferring responsibility for all armed operations except basic bodyguarding to the army before it is too late. If more than 50 armed policemen, under the "command" of Scotland Yard's most senior officers, make such heavy weather of dealing with one drunken barrister with one shotgun, how can we be confident of their performance in a more complicated incident? What chance realistically will the police (or the public) have in a Mumbai- style running battle with trained terrorists?

Crispin Black is a former soldier and security expert