Police officers could be routinely armed in parts of the UK to respond to terror attacks and major incidents, it has been revealed.
Police chiefs said the radical step is being considered for areas that cannot be reached quickly enough by dedicated armed response vehicles (ARVs), after it emerged that a government recruitment target has been missed.
The controversial prospect of arming officers in remote areas, or giving then easy access to guns, will be opposed by many and prompt concerns that core principles of British policing are being undermined.
Deputy Chief Constable Simon Chesterman, the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) lead for armed policing, said discussions were ongoing in a “handful” of police forces over how to improve response times.
“I am confident the response in Birmingham, Manchester and the larger cities would be as impressive as we’ve seen in London,” he added.
“Inevitably, as you get out of the major cities into the more sparsely populated areas, then depending on patrol patterns and numbers the response times will take longer.
“We are working with individual forces to see whether a further financial uplift is required, whether patrol patterns can be a bit more intelligent and whether other options are appropriate, such as routine arming of certain frontline resources.”
David Cameron awarded £143m to boost national capability following the 2015 massacres carried out by Isis militants in Paris, but the number of counter-terrorist specialist firearms officers (CTSFOs) remains around 100 short of target.
Although the number of ARVs, which are the first unit dispatched during a suspected terror attack, has increased by 25 per cent in England and Wales, they cannot yet cover all remote areas.
ARVs patrol for 24 hours a day, carrying at least two firearms officers equipped with semi-automatic rifles, handguns, Tasers and other weapons.
The 43 police forces under Home Office control have increased their total number of specialist firearms officers by 874 in the past two years to almost 6,500, who are based in areas considered to be at greatest threat.
There are another 3,300 armed officers in the British Transport Police, Civil Nuclear Constabulary and Ministry of Defence Police, who can be deployed to support a major incident.
Mr Chesterman said ARVs can currently reach urban areas in under 10 minutes but admitted the delay would be “significantly longer” elsewhere.
“We have significantly improved response times across England and Wales and the analysis proves that the vast majority of the population will get a very swift armed response,” he added.
“But if there are gaps in the amount of protection we’re able to deliver to the public then we’ve got to think of innovative ways of filling them.
“Ideally it would be with an ARV but for a range of reasons that may not be the answer, so routine arming must be a consideration.”
Mr Chesterman insisted that the move has not yet been decided upon and is only being considered in a small number of forces.
“The position of police chiefs nationally is that we value the unarmed nature of British policing, policing by consent, and want to continue it,” he added.
“My preference always would be that the best asset to respond is an armed response vehicle.”
Devon and Cornwall Police confirmed it was among forces in the ongoing consultation but has no intelligence on a “specific threat” in the region.
“We in Devon, Cornwall and Dorset police have used armed officers to help police major events for many years,” a spokesperson said.
“What we are now looking to do is increase our capability in responding to incidents where armed officers may be needed; this includes an uplift in the number of trained armed officers we have in the force.
“We will also now use visibly armed officers to undertake foot patrols at key locations.”
Around 90 per cent of British police officers are currently unarmed and a survey by the Police Federation found that only a third of members supported the idea of routine arming, although 55 per cent were prepared to carry a gun if ordered to.
While the training, staff and equipment needed for ARV units is costly, there are questions about how everyday bobbies could be adequately trained to use guns, and whether weapons would be carried constantly or stored in local armouries.
Mr Chesterman said the possibility of a Paris-style marauding gun and bomb attack could not be ruled out in Britain, which suffered five terror attacks last year.
“The more likely type of attacks are the low-level, low-sophistication self-starters – people who use vehicles or knives to maim and injure people,” he told The Independent.
“That seems to be the direction and the threat that we have to be capable of mitigating, and we are.”
Mr Chesterman said police were constantly working with intelligence agencies to review changing threats, and had already altered guidelines that previously discouraged officers from shooting at moving vehicles.
They are now specifically trained to shoot drivers through windscreens and windows, and are exploring new technology to stop vehicles.
The number of firearms officers overall in England and Wales has risen by more than 1,300 since April 2016 but CTSFOs are trained to military standards for assaults on terrorist strongholds, sieges and hostage rescues.
The elite teams are currently being given Sig Sauer MCX semi-automatic rifles with built-in suppressors, which will be used with subsonic ammunition and new night vision equipment, to enable officers to attack targets in darkness and almost complete silence.
Mr Chesterman said CTSFOs, who are also deployed for major manhunts and covert surveillance, are trained to launch from helicopters and use explosives.
The specialist units were currently “running hot” because of short-staffing, forcing overtime and changing shift patterns.
“To deliver the full effect we need more numbers,” Mr Chesterman warned. “We are around 100 CTSFOs short and because of the nature and length of the course, the difficulty and the attrition rate, [filling the posts] is going to take about a year.”
The number of CTSFOs has risen by 70 per cent, but they are currently recruited from ARV units, leaving them short-staffed in turn.
Mr Chesterman compared the phenomenon to “filling the bath with the plug out”, while the overall number of police officers in England and Wales has fallen by around 20,000 since 2010.
“That’s a smaller pool for us to recruit from and then when you factor in other risks and threats that chief constables are juggling – cybercrime, child abuse on the internet, knife crime, acid attacks – armed policing is just one of them,” he added.
“It’s not as simple as moving people from one place to another – they are spinning plates.”
Pressure from worried relatives and fears of being treated “like suspects” following fatal shootings is putting conventional officers off applying for firearms roles, police leaders say, amid a continuing Home Office review into legal protections.
The Independent Office for Police Conduct’s handling of the London Bridge and Westminster attacks – where the culprits were shot dead within minutes of launching the atrocities – were described as “very good”, but other probes have left officers under threat of prosecution for years.
Of those who volunteer to join ARV units, only half make the grade, and a quarter of trained firearms officers who try to become CTSFOs fail.
The struggles were revealed days after the head of MI5 warned that the “unprecedented tempo of attack planning shows no signs of abating” in Britain.
Andrew Parker revealed that 12 Islamist plots had been thwarted since the Westminster attack in March last year, with Isis remaining the most acute threat, followed by al-Qaeda and the far right.
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