The debate over whether all police officers should carry firearms was raised again last week following the deaths of two police officers in Manchester. Phil Gormley, Chief Constable of Norfolk police, discusses the issue here.

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The deaths of constables Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes in Manchester last week has understandably prompted much debate as to whether all British police officers should be routinely armed.

It has also bought into sharp focus the risks that officers take on behalf of the public whilst going about their normal everyday duties.

In reality it is impossible to eliminate personal risk from the profession of policing which by its very nature requires officers to place themselves between danger and the public. British police officers know and understand this when they join the service.

The tradition of predominantly unarmed constables patrolling with the consent and support of the public is precious and should not be given up lightly. British policing at its heart is about our relationship with the public we serve that relationship would irrevocably change were every officer to be armed.

The only realistic way in which an officer could protect themselves from an unforeseen surprise gun attack would be to approach every routine interaction with a gun in their hand. It is not hard to imagine the impact this would have on relationships between the police and the communities we serve.

The lifeblood of effective policing is good intelligence it enables us to deploy our increasingly stretched resources to maximum effect and to neutralise criminal threats before they are realised. Intelligence is provided by individuals and communities on the basis of the trust and confidence they have in us. In essence the bedrock of good policing is the relationship between communities and the police. The arming of all officers would further distance us from those we serve with a probable reduction in the provision of information, intelligence and support to the detriment of society at large. I firmly believe that it is as likely to increase the risks and dangers to the public and the police as it is to reduce them.

Many of my best officers have neither the wish nor the aptitude to routinely carry firearms. The selection and training of armed officers (all of whom are volunteers) is necessarily rigorous and properly demanding. The use of lethal force is a heavy responsibility with dire consequences for all concerned if it goes wrong. A decision to arm the entire service would require an alteration to the existing standards of selection training and accuracy or to fundamentally change the basis upon which officers are selected to join the Service.

Neither of these options are desirable and would probably expose the police and the public to a range of unintended and undesirable consequences.

What is required on the limited occasions it is needed is readily available, properly trained and equipped specialist firearms support to protect the public or the police from lethal threats. Following the Hungerford massacre in 1987 this support has been provided by officers in Armed Response Vehicles. These officers are trained and equipped to the highest standards, capable of taking on and overcoming the most dangerous criminals and terrorists.

Every Chief Constable carefully evaluates the strategic threats and risks presented by armed criminality in their force area and makes proportionate decisions as to the number and deployment of armed officers based on that professional assessment. Self evidently the threat of gun crime in cities such as London, Birmingham and Manchester are higher than in a county like ours with consequently greater numbers of armed officers deployed in those locations.

The British police service has an enviable reputation in relation to its use of firearms which stands comparison with any other jurisdiction. In 2010/2011 firearms were authorised for deployment at 17,209 incidents across the country. Of these deployments, firearms were discharged by police on only 3 occasions, a testament to the professionalism and restraint of those officers who volunteer to carry firearms and shoulder that awesome responsibility in order to protect their fellow citizens.

The issue of whether all police should be armed all of the time is therefore a complicated one with profound consequences not all of which are immediately obvious. It is right that the question is raised and the motivation is a good one namely to prevent further tragedies such as we witnessed last week.

However, I for one do not believe that an armed service is the right answer. What I do know and believe as we approach the funerals of Fiona and Nicola is that officers across the country will continue to carry out the job they have sworn to do and that our best protection comes from the active support of those we serve.

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