Why UK police officers are reluctant to carry guns

Potential marksmen put off by fears over how they may be treated following a police shooting

Armed police officers
Armed police officers in Cheltenham
(Image credit: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

The police service is struggling to recruit specialist firearms officers amid concern about the treatment of police marksmen in the wake of police shootings.

Police chiefs report a 70% increase in the ranks of the most highly trained armed officers over the past two years, but say about 100 recruits are still needed for the pool of counterterrorist specialist firearms officers (CTSFOs), reports Sky News.

In April 2016, then-PM David Cameron pledged £143m over five years to increase the overall number of armed officers, including regular and elite firearms officers, in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris the previous November.

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Latest official Home Office figures show there were a total of 6,278 police marksmen in England and Wales in March 2017 - up from 5,639 in March 2016, but still less than the 6,756 in March 2012.

Deputy Chief Constable Simon Chesterman, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for armed policing, says part of the problem is that the elite officers are selected from the ranks of regular armed officers, and then need to be replaced in turn.

“Delivering the uplift has been a bit like filling a bath with the plug out,” he said.

The CTSFOs are given special training to deal with situations such as hostage rescues and sieges. Chesterman says the demands of the role means there is a high turnover rate.

Officers are also put off from specialising in firearms over fears of the treatment they may face if they have to shoot someone, he added.

Although this is a rare occurence - officers discharge firearms in about four of the 14,000 armed incidents they attend each year, on average - Chesterman said the ensuing investigations have been known to take up to ten years before an officer has been found not guilty.

He said the police service welcomes intense scrutiny after a shooting, but added: “On average, these things are taking years. That’s not fair on the officer and especially not fair on the bereaved family.”

A survey of rank-and-file officers published last September by the Police Federation of England and Wales found that just a third were in favour of routinely arming officers. However, many thought that more officers should be trained and issued with firearms as and when necessary.

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