'Armed officers joined police force to protect people, not kill'

Armed police officers
Armed police officers

There can be nothing so grave as to take another human being’s life, be that lawfully or unlawfully, writes former police chief Graham Bartlett. To do so wrecks so many others’ lives be they friends and loved ones of the person killed or the killer themselves.

We are fortunate in the British Isles that, unlike most other developed countries, our police service is not routinely armed. This is something we should cherish, relying on the four per cent or so of officers who have applied, been selected then trained to carry guns. Armed operations must always be authorised by accredited senior officers, other than in very exceptional circumstances where to do so may risk the public or officers’ safety. However, once authorised, the decision to fire almost always rests with the officer themselves. It is they who must apply the law and their training, often in a split second. These are PCs and sergeants who will have joined the police to protect, not kill people.

I do not know why 24-year-old Chris Kaba, was killed by an armed Metropolitan Police officer in September last year, nor why that officer has now been charged with murder. Even if I did, I would not share it here as the matter is sub judice.

What I do understand is the individual anxieties that armed officers have in light of that Crown Prosecution Service decision. It is incredibly rare for police officers in Britain to discharge their weapon. In the year ending March 2022, there were 18,259 armed operations in England and Wales and shots were fired by police in only four of those. Therefore the chances of an armed officer having to shoot are 0.02 per cent. However, if officers are fearful that were they one of the officers who shot and killed a person during one of those four operations they might be charged with murder, it is easy to understand why they might reconsider volunteering for armed duties.

Like prison officers and the military, the police cannot strike nor take any other form of industrial action. This has been so since 1919 and, despite headlines to the contrary, officers deciding to no longer carry guns is neither a protest nor industrial action.

Armed officers understand that they are personally accountable for every round they fire, ultimately to the courts if necessary, and they are well used to lower levels of scrutiny.

However, the spectre of a murder charge, life imprisonment and, of course, dismissal from their chosen profession for carrying out an act for which they have been trained and deployed is understandably too much for many.

These officers might have families who rely on them so to choose a role, which attracts no more money, that might send them to prison for a split second decision suddenly becomes less attractive.

There might be truly exceptional circumstances to what happened to tragically end Mr Kaba’s life and here is not the place to speculate but such is the nature of the British justice system, we cannot know that until the trial.

Therefore, as with any dearth of information, it’s natural for people to fill the vacuum with their own hypotheses. We are all guilty of it and I would guess that armed officers up and down the country are speculating on what might have happened and how the officer will end up in the dock.

If I were an armed officer, I would certainly reconsider whether I wanted to carry a gun and probably would decide not to until the boundaries of reasonable force and criminal acts were more clearly defined.

I’d also expect my senior officers, politicians and the media to be vocal in their support.

Not necessarily for the officer charged, that’s a matter for a judge and jury, but for me and my colleagues. If we think of the police service as the thin blue line, those four per cent who are armed comprise a gossamer thin thread of that, yet it is they who stand between the most dangerous criminals and terrorists and the rest of us.

Unless and until they can do so with the confidence that only clear and obvious criminal acts will end up in murder charges, why would they continue when there are equally important yet less personally precarious roles than that? My only surprise is that equivalent officers in other forces have not taken the same steps.

Former Brighton and Hove police chief Graham Bartlett’s Jo Howe crime novels, Bad For Good and Force Of Hate are now published in paperback