In keeping with the firearms theme of the past few weeks, I thought it would be remiss of me to discuss the laws relating to the ownership and possession of firearms by the general public and exclude those under which England’s “Bobbies” (the police) must operate. It is true that police in England and Wales are generally out and about on the beat unarmed – in fact, this character of the police seems to have formed part of our national identity. The Home Office has stated:
the policy in England and Wales has long been that the police should not generally be armed and that gives a character to our policing that we should not readily give up … The use of firearms is a rare last resort, considered only when there is a serious risk to public or police safety.
Thus, whilst the majority of police across England and Wales are unarmed, there is also access to an armed capability. The use of force by the police is governed by section 117 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and section 3 of the Criminal Law Act 1967, which provide that the force used must be reasonable in the circumstances of each case. The courts are the bodies that determine whether or not the use of force was reasonable.
The armed capability of the police can be accessed by a process of special authorizations, which are established by the chief police officers in each area. In establishing the authorization procedure, the chief police officers must take into account the Association of Chief Police Officers Manuals of Guidance and factor in the known and reasonably foreseeable threats and risks in their area, including “the threat posed by armed persons such as criminals, terrorists and armed groups.” The rank at which the authorization must occur may vary based upon the weapons involved and the urgency of the situation.
During 2008-2009 there were 6,868 authorized firearms officers, and the use of firearms by these officers was authorized in 19,951 cases. The majority of these authorizations occurred in the London metropolitan area. Whilst the number of firearms authorized was fairly high during this period, in only four incidents was a firearm discharged.
In any instance where police are involved in a fatal shooting, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (the IPCC) will conduct an investigation independently from the police. It passes the findings from these investigations onto the Crown Prosecution Service, the body responsible for prosecuting crimes in England and Wales, which then considers whether to file criminal charges against any police officers involved. An example of the work of the IPCC includes its investigation and subsequent reports of the high profile police shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes on the London Underground in 2005. At the time of the shooting, Mr. de Menezes was suspected of being a suicide bomber, but the report later revealed this was not the case. The first IPCC report made several recommendations regarding the need to review some of the policies and practices relating to police firearms operations, and the police have responded to these recommendations as well as other inquiries relating to the incident.