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Fred Broughton
Fred Broughton: Wants to see the unarmed service maintained

Danny Thomas
Danny Thomas: Says it is hip to carry a gun

Paul Acres
Paul Acres: Insists Nottingham police are not routinely armed

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It is a neighbourhood with a reputation for drugs and violence; a place where gang rivalry has led to shootings. The police officers patrolling these streets have loaded guns in their holsters; armed units are ready to provide back up. Is this a scene from the ghettos of the United States? No, this is Nottingham in the heart of England, a country with a long tradition of unarmed police officers who walk the beat with only a truncheon for protection.

Audio  Watch Peter Gould's report   Real 56K

The decision to introduce armed patrols on some inner-city housing estates in Nottingham has raised eyebrows. The days of Dixon of Dock Green may be long gone, but is this a symbolic moment in Britain’s drift towards gun crime?

The police in Nottingham have played down suggestions that it is the start of a process that will end with all street patrols being routinely armed. The move has been targeted at specific areas, with the intention of reassuring the public and sending a strong message to young criminals not to use guns.

Putting more armed officers on the streets is a very sensitive issue for chief constables, who are well aware of the public’s unease. An opinion poll carried out for BBC News Online reinforces that message. Only 34% of those questioned want to see the police routinely carrying guns, while the majority – 59% – want to retain a service that is largely unarmed.

Getting the police to discuss these issues is difficult. We approached 10 police forces, but none wanted to talk about their own policy on firearms, referring us instead to the Association of Chief Police Officers.

The fashion for firearms

Paul Acres is Chief Constable of the Hertfordshire force, and spoke to us as chairman of ACPO’s firearms committee. He insists that the decision to issue guns to officers in some parts of Nottingham does not amount to routine arming.

“I think the British public cherish the image of a police officer who is very much part of the community and is very close to them, and we recognise that firearms create a bit of distance,” he says.

“We are very happy to try to keep that image, but for people to know that the officers who are unarmed are supported by a very swift and effective response, and that there is no profit in taking a firearm onto the streets or certainly challenging our officers.”

Senior police officers point to the spread of firearms in cities like Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham. And others share a concern that for some young criminals, guns have become part of their image.

“To carry a gun is hip,” says former armed robber Danny Thomas.

“They are carrying a gun with their Reebok trainers, with their Moschino jeans, with their Gucci tops. It’s a fashion accessory now.”

The deployment of armed police officers seems to have been given a cautious welcome by residents in neighbourhoods that have suffered from an increase in gun-related incidents. But there are fears that instead of halting the spiral of violence, increasing the number of armed officers on the streets could encourage more criminals to carry guns.

Many British policemen and women worry that it could be the first step on a slippery slope. After a number of officers were killed in the mid-90s, the Police Federation of England and Wales carried out a ballot of its members.

Fact box banner
A survey (1995) of police attitudes to armed patrols found:
  • 79% of police officers said they were not in favour of being routinely armed
  • But 40% said more officers should be trained to use firearms
  • 42% felt their life had been in serious danger as a result of personal threat in the previous two years
  • 39% had been threatened with firearm, knife or other weapon in the previous two years
  • In the event of a decision to arm all officers 43% said they would be prepared to carry firearms on duty or all of the time
  • 6% said they would resign from the police service if they were ordered to wear a firearm
    Source: Police Federation
  • Fact boc bottom

    “A significant majority did not want to be permanently armed,” says Federation chairman Fred Broughton.

    “But they did want proper risk assessments. They specifically wanted back up, and they wanted mobile armed-response vehicles. They also wanted better training and they wanted better management of armed situations.

    “Many of us want to see the unarmed service and the traditions of British policing maintained. But for how long we can maintain them is the question.”

    There is an uneasy feeling by those with long experience in the law enforcement business that Britain may be moving gradually towards an armed police service.

    John Alderson, the former Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall, says such a development would require the consent of the public.“At the end of the day this will be a political decision based on the advice of the chief constables,” he says.

    “It would be very, very important to inform the public in advance and to educate them. It is not just a question of arming the police; it is more than that. It is a change of culture in our country that we would be unlikely ever to reverse.”

    There is no doubt that in recent years people in Britain have become more used to seeing police officers carrying guns. The weapons are a visible deterrent to terrorists at airports like Heathrow, and attract little comment when carried by officers mounting guard on major trials at the Old Bailey. Almost every force now has armed response vehicles, ready to go to the scene of a robbery or siege.

    But it is still a world away from the US, where the armed police officer is a fact of life, and most forces have paramilitary-style SWAT teams on call for major incidents.

    Rigorous tests

    Policy-makers in the UK have to keep the risks in perspective. Gun-related crime is still a very small element in our crime statistics. Last year there were about 4,000 armed incidents in England and Wales and 42 people died from gunshot wounds. In the US about 30,000 people each year are killed by guns - and another 90,000 injured.

    In deciding whether to put more armed officers onto the streets, the police also have to consider the possibility that it could lead to more deaths. In the US a significant number of police officers have been killed by their own guns, and when they have opened fire on criminals, it has often led to controversy.

    In Britain, those selected for training in the use of firearms are usually older, more experienced officers. They have to pass rigorous tests in marksmanship and fitness. There is a concern that arming a significantly larger number of officers could lower standards.

    It is a delicate balance for the police. They have to be ready to respond to the threat from armed criminals, without offending the majority of law-abiding citizens who still believe that the bobby on the beat should not really be carrying a gun.

    But the growth of a criminal gun culture means that the debate is far from over. Nottingham may not be the last British city to see armed police officers patrolling its streets.

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