That’s true. A nonprofit that promotes mental health assistance for US police officers reported a record number of suicides in 2019—228—among current and former police officers. And there’s research showing higher suicide rates among gun owners, simply because they have the means to act on suicidal impulses. Still, there must have been a moment in your career as a police officer when you wished you had a gun?
Not really. When I was a newly promoted sergeant, I ended up chasing a guy who’d done an armed robbery who was carrying a gun. I didn’t have one. I was very pleased when he decided to throw it away and keep running rather than turn around. If we were more militarized and armed in UK policing, maybe he would have turned around and pointed it at me. As it was, he threw it away and ran and I was faster than he was because I was fit and he was a drug addict. So justice was done. I’ve had a few knocks and bruises in my policing career, but I’m alive and well.
Did I hear you say the percentage of British police officers carrying guns rose slightly under your watch?
After looking at terrorist attacks as they were developing in other parts of the world, most notably after the Bataclan attack and other Paris events, we decided we needed a larger number of armed officers to deal with such eventualities. At that time, I was in charge of national counter-terrorism, and I discussed that with David Cameron and Theresa May and they gave us extra money to arm us. That might have taken us from 5.5 percent to 7 percent of officers being armed. It was a big deal for us, but it still left well over 90 percent of our officers unarmed.
That small percentage does mean the training levels can be very, very, very high. On my watch, in 2017, we shot dead quite a few terrorists. Do you remember the attack on London Bridge? The terrorists drove over a bridge and mowed down some people. Three guys get out of the vehicle and the three guys are shot by the police. They were shot dead within eight minutes of the police being called.
That was a consequence of changes we’d made in the previous two years, having more armed officers. But still, only 7 percent of your officers are armed, and three roving terrorists are shot dead in eight minutes? I know the NYPD or Chicago or Los Angeles police would be very happy with that outcome.
I’m not suggesting the US could import that. Our armed officers are trained to a far higher level than your average armed American cop because they can be, because it’s a small proportion. Ours are doing five weeks a year of training. When only a small percentage of your officers are armed, you can afford that kind of investment. Every one of our armed officers is actually trained to deal with terrorists who might appear to be wearing a suicide belt.
The training to a higher level means you’re much less likely to unnecessarily shoot a member of the public. We have various training kits in the UK where you take your people through different scenarios, perhaps using a laser gun, and it shows you when they fire and how much they fire, and it improves judgments and decision making.
Without that training, an officer can shoot the wrong person. Or let themselves get tunnel vision where they fail to see a line of innocent people at a bus stop behind the bad guy. Learning to get as much information as possible before you fire, waiting a fraction of a second longer to see that it isn’t actually a weapon he’s carrying. The practicing of that kind of judgment is very difficult, but that’s what our armed officers are trained to do.
Of course, with fewer armed officers, there’s a danger your response might not be quick enough. You have to be able to manage the logistics very carefully when you’ve got fewer armed officers. But we’ve shown we can respond quickly.