Editorial: No rush, but don't rule out arming the police

There are dangers in wanting to preserve the British exception for its own sake

The killing of two female police officers in Greater Manchester on Tuesday has prompted the usual calls, first for the restoration of the death penalty for police murder and, second, for the arming of the police. The first can be dismissed at once. The abolition of the death penalty was a matter of morality and principle; the decision will not, and should not, be revisited, even for such a heinous crime.

The second, the arming of the police, is more complicated. For while it would patently be wrong to take such a decision hastily in the wake of the latest killings, there are dangers, too, in stubbornly wanting to preserve the British exception for its own sake.

The arguments for keeping an unarmed force are well rehearsed, and the public outcry that even now attends the killing of an officer on duty is itself a reflection of how rare such deaths remain. It has also to be noted that, contrary to the widespread impression, shooting crimes have actually fallen quite substantially in recent years. Britain has far less of a problem with illegal use of firearms than do many other countries, and such crimes tend to be highly localised. Police efforts to tackle firearms crimes can therefore be regarded as reasonably successful, which is a compelling reason for resisting any precipitate policy change.

Nor – at least from the facts that have emerged so far – can it necessarily be argued that Constables Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes would still be alive if they had been armed. They appear to have been the victims of an ambush; the attack entailed not just shots, but a grenade. Having an armed police force might deter some criminals, but it does not prevent officers being targeted and killed. Indeed, there is some reason to believe the opposite: that arming the police may encourage criminals not just to carry weapons, but to use them. Police mistakes also become more lethal: witness the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell station in 2005.

National character comes into it, too. Britain would be a different place with an armed police force. Relations between police and public might well be more formal and tense than they are – at best – when a truncheon is assumed to be the only weapon routinely carried by a police officer. Were that to change, something indefinable, but crucial, would be lost.

Yet methods of policing have to evolve to match changing times, and the terrorist threat has made armed officers a more frequent sight, especially in London. There is a real question, too, posed most starkly by last year's riots, whether the police, as an institution, has not suffered a loss in authority over the years that has made law-enforcement less credible than it should be. Arming the police might be seen as an extreme way of redressing the balance, but it could be the most effective.

After the recent revelations about the Hillsborough cover-up, we argued for a full inquiry into the police on the model of the Leveson Inquiry into the press. It is, after all, one of the last unreformed branches of the state. The prospect of such an inquiry may now have receded, as the best side of the police eclipses the worst in the public mind. But the arguments for an inquiry remain strong, and the extent to which our police already carry firearms and the possible consequences, positive and negative, of an armed force should be part of it. Now, with emotions running high, is not the time to broach such a profound change. But that does not mean that, in an appropriate setting, when passions have cooled, the case for and against should not be made.