It has been a long-held belief in British policing that the unarmed British officer is among the safest in the world.
As an often-quoted American police chief once put it: ‘If a New York cop was on duty in London, he would be in jail within a week, and if the British bobby was on duty in New York, he would be dead within a week.’
Unfortunately we have become accustomed – in and around London mostly – to seeing armed officers walking about. They are usually in security-sensitive places such as airports, railway stations and embassies.
But Metropolitan police commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe is putting another 600 armed officers on the capital’s streets to deal with the terrorism threat.
Most of us accept it as an unpalatable but necessary fact of life.
But the Met’s move appears to challenge the fundamental principle that a police force not routinely armed is the best way to maintain an unarmed society.
Britain is rare among urbanised countries in not routinely arming its police force. But the experience of many other countries, and the United States in particular, is that having armed police officers does not stop them being shot. In fact, if anything, being armed can increase the chances of them being shot because a criminal on the street will assume any officer who challenges him poses a deadly threat and so will be encouraged to shoot first.
Naturally the debate has spread to Hampshire and, as we report today, the chairman of Hampshire Police Federation John Apter would like to see a national survey of officers. The last one, a decade ago, revealed 82 per cent did not agree with routine arming.
We believe nothing has changed.
Hampshire’s firearms officers are not routinely out patrolling the streets, but are concentrated in specialised armed response units. And that, we say, is how things should stay.
No discussion of armed policing can be held without mentioning the death of Jean Charles de Menezes in 2005.
He was killed in the mistaken belief that he was a terrorist carrying explosives.
His death remains a warning to all firearms officers who may now be called upon to make that split-second decision to open fire to deal with an imminent threat to life.