When Robert Peel started the 'New Police' in 1829, the idea faced profound and widespread hostility. Peel and his colleagues realised that the police could not defeat the mass of the population by force. Policing by consent was the only option, even if that consent was grudgingly offered by the lower social classes. That was why he consciously decided that the 'bobbies', unlike the Bow Street Runners and other ad hoc groups of constables, should be unarmed. Even the truncheon was to be hidden away, lest it should appear offensive.
The doctrine of 'minimum force' came to mean that there was a ceiling on the weapons to which the police had access - and a low ceiling at that. When a serious threat presented itself, the military was called in.
The vulnerability of the police was turned to advantage. When PC Culley was stabbed to death during a riot in 1833, and the inquest jury returned a verdict of 'justifiable homicide', there was public outrage and the verdict was overturned on appeal. Periodically since then, the murder of police officers has aroused public sympathy; the more vulnerable the officer and the more callous the murder, the greater the public outcry.
The image of an unarmed police force has been nurtured throughout the past 160 years, even when the reality was very different. Following a spate of armed burglaries in the 1880s, the Metropolitan Police allowed officers to carry a pistol on night duty if they wished. This policy was kept secret and officers were instructed to keep the gun hidden. Even today, uniformed armed officers on diplomatic protection keep their guns out of sight. When officers were allowed to carry carbines openly at Heathrow and other airports in 1987, much of the debate revolved around the effect this change would have on the public image of the police.
Rather than be accused of 'tooling up', the police made little attempt to train officers in the use of firearms, relying instead on officers who had received military training. It was only in the 1960s that such training began to be taken seriously. A few other countries have taken the same course. When Ireland became independent in the 1920s, the Garda Siochana - the police who replaced the Royal Irish Constabulary - were unarmed. This was intended to signal the change from a colonial to a post-colonial regime. New Zealand made a similar declaration by disarming the paramilitary police who had fought the Maori wars.
The colonial tradition has normally been less benign. Colonialism entails the suppression of the native population, who do not qualify as citizens. The relationship between them and the police tends to be that between an army and the 'enemy within'. This relationship is reflected in the use of military tactics and weaponry designed to inflict maximum injury, or death, not minimum force. Thus, the South African police still arm their officers with automatic rifles and train them in the use of hand grenades and mortars.
In countries where the police were armed, it was not because they faced greater dangers than the early Victorian British police, but because their origins lay in the military. On the Continent, civil policing evolved through paramilitary police, who had (and continue to have) a military and a police function. The French gendarmerie, for example, have light tanks and are expected to fight within France in time of war.
Do our police, facing gun-toting drug dealers, pay the price of a historical legacy of minimum force? Probably not: the vast majority of the world's police forces are armed and the murder of, and attacks on, the police vary enormously from one jurisdiction to another. It seems pretty clear that arming the police has little effect on their safety or on crime levels generally. The police are always vulnerable, no matter how heavily armed they are. The police must react to threat; the initiative, therefore, lies with the 'bad guys'. The FBI estimates that, in 50 per cent of police murders in the United States, the officer does not have time even to draw his gun.
Throughout the world, whatever the present level of arming, officers seek enhanced weaponry. The Home Office has bowed to demands in this country to equip officers with longer truncheons. In other countries, officers demand 'quick draw' holsters and more powerful weapons and ammunition. In the US, the reliable six-shot revolver is being traded in for mechanically complex 'semi-automatics' that carry up to 18 rounds but are more difficult to use. This is despite evidence that, in most shootings involving the police, no more than three shots are fired. Recognising their vulnerability, police officers seek 'the edge', but they never have the edge, because they rarely have the initiative.
This is so even in a pre-planned armed operation. In 1984, PC Brian Bishop and his armed colleagues confronted an armed man in Frinton, Essex. PC Bishop called on the suspect to surrender, but the man fired two blasts from inside a bag he was carrying. Bishop was killed and a colleague seriously wounded. Fire was returned and the assailant seriously injured, but by then it was too late. Desperate, deranged and drugged adversaries are not necessarily deterred by armed police.
Nowhere in the developed world are armed police as well protected as their unarmed British counterparts. Genuine protection is not offered by weaponry, but by the conditions in which the police carry out their task. Instead of arming the police, we should attend to how order and justice can be maintained and enhanced.
The author is Reader in Police Studies at the University of Reading.
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