UK police chiefs discuss officers routinely carrying guns

Vikram Dodd Police and crime correspondent
Armed British Transport police specialist officers on board a train to Birmingham New Street. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

Police leaders have discussed frontline constables carrying guns amid concerns it would take too long for fully trained armed officers to reach an attack in rural areas, a police chief has said.

Simon Chesterman, the national lead for armed policing, said the routine arming of regular officers remained an option given an elevated terror threat to Britain that security officials believe is here to stay, with 12 terrorist murder plots known about in the last year.

The Guardian has seen details of the plans presented to police chiefs that would see beat officers being given two weeks of training.

Police chiefs want to keep the tradition that just a fraction of officers are armed, and only after being highly trained. But the heightened terror threat, the rising availability of firearms and their increased use have led to a focus on how each force would respond.

A paper written by Chesterman for a meeting of police chiefs to discuss routine arming said: “Depending upon the level of training required, an officer would require approximately two weeks initial training to deploy with a handgun. This would include weapons handling and retention together with some basic tactics. Officers would require approximately two days per annum refresher training and to perform qualification shoots.

“Aside from the costs associated with abstractions for training, there would be significant implications and costs associated with supporting infrastructure such as access to suitable ranges and firearms instructors. Ranges and instructors are already significantly stretched by the Uplift Programme. The cost of a handgun is £500.”

The discussion paper was written for a police chiefs meeting last July and came after Britain suffered a string of deadly terror attacks in London and Manchester. It also said: “Routinely armed response officers would be trained to intervene in extremis before the specialist firearms response gets there.”

Chesterman confirmed discussions had taken place about “whether some form of routine arming might be appropriate”.

He said it was best that the first police response to a terror attack was fully trained firearms officers who are stationed in armed response vehicles, and whose numbers have grown in the last two years.

But studies by officials find in some rural areas it would take too long for fully trained armed officers to reach, so police have been devising plans for how that gap might be plugged.

One option in an area such as Devon and Cornwall, is for regular constables who volunteer to openly wear guns on their belt; another is for the guns to be stored securely in patrol cars. Another two rural forces are understood to be considering similar plans.

Chesterman said: “I think that it does not need to happen at the moment as the threat is not there,” but he stressed the option remained open.

Any decision on arming officers is a matter for the chief constable of each of the 43 local forces covering England and Wales, as well as the national British Transport Police. Officers in Northern Ireland are routinely armed while on patrol.

But Chesterman said that in the last year, five attacks that got through and seven plots to shed blood by jihadis had been thwarted, and that was a trend, not a spike.

He said efforts to boost armed officers who patrol in cars had hit their target, but police were still short of 100 counter-terrorism specialist firearms officers (CTSFOs).

They come from existing trained armed officers and are trained to special forces levels with the ability to storm areas by fast-roping out of helicopters and ending sieges.

Chesterman revealed that CTSFOs will have new special weapons and sub-sonic ammunition so they can shoot terrorist suspects silently: “The barrels will become thicker as they will be silenced.”

They will also have night-vision sights mounted on their helmets and both new tactics will help them end sieges.

Chesterman described the advantage it will give police in tackling terrorist suspects: “We can see them, they can’t see us and they can’t hear us.”

Police are also working on new technology to burst tyres or immobilise engines to thwart lorries driving into crowds, and armed officers have new tactics to shoot suspected terrorists driving such vehicles to bring them to a stop.

After the November 2015 attack on Paris, the British government ordered extra armed officers for Britain’s streets to counter the threat of a rampaging armed gun attack.

There are now 1,351 more armed officers with 6,465 in the 43 local forces and another 3,305 in the civil nuclear, Ministry of Defence and British Transport forces, who could be called upon.

Routine arming is controversial within policing and many chiefs do not support it, but attitudes are shifting in favour.