Today I was lucky enough to be the guest of Surrey Police and Sussex Police at their joint firearms training establishment in East Sussex to observe recurrent training of Authorised Firearms Officers (AFOs). Regular readers will know that I often write about criminal justice issues and I really try to become informed on complicated matters where the public perception might not tell the whole story. Last year I observed police Taser training which was an eye-opening experience.
“We do not need guns and bombs to bring peace, we need love and compassion.”- Mother Teresa
I was invited to today’s training during a Twitter-storm-in-a-teacup when I commented about incidences of armed police bringing their guns to routine callouts. When people ask what the point of social media, like twitter, is I would use this as an example. Deputy Chief Constable Simon Chesterman saw my tweet and contacted me to offer the opportunity to find out how British armed police operate. Simon is the ACPO lead for armed policing. He contacted Surrey’s Chief Constable, Lynne Owens, who asked me what I would like to see and authorised it. Then Assistant Chief Constable Steve Barry who is in charge of specialist operations for Surrey and Sussex got in touch followed by Superintendent Sharon Bush.
If you haven’t already noticed, senior police officers all have Twitter accounts! They are clearly not for reporting crimes on. They are for communicating with the public (well, tweeters anyway). This transparency is very interesting. Although I am now a parliamentary candidate, when I observed the Taser training I was just a typical blogger. Everyone I met on these two days was keen to explain their jobs and answer my questions. Also, much of what I discovered was contrary to public perception. Clearly the police is making an effort to show what they do and why and clearly this is needed because public debate about some policing issues is not informed enough yet.
Observant readers will have noticed that I have spoken to 4 senior officers by this stage. There were two more, Inspectors, in the chain before today’s visit. I can’t really comment on whether this chain is too long. If the police was set up to facilitate politicians visiting their facilities then it is rather inefficient. Happily, that is not their raison d’être so I can understand why it took a few phone calls and emails. I won’t name the other officers because they don’t have as high a public profile and I haven’t asked them if it would be OK. However, everyone was very helpful and cooperative, especially the Inspector who showed me round today. He answered my questions and talked through the events we were watching making sure I noticed the important points.
“If someone has a gun and is trying to kill you, it would be reasonable to shoot back with your own gun.”- Dalai Lama XIV
At the training base, there is a mock town road with a bus stop, lots of seized cars for practising with and an indoor mock-up of lots of rooms in a maze-like building where gunmen and their victims could be concealed.
AFOs have at least 15 recurrent training days per year, with additional days required for various specialisations. Some trainees I spoke to suggested up to 30 days per year spent training. This seems like a lot and I think the public would be reassured because of the responsibility an armed officer has. They do not shoot to incapacitate, they shoot to kill. If a target is shot and no longer a threat then they carry out medical treatment to try to undo the effect of their own shots. I heard about how the armed police at a shooting are often able to administer immediate treatment for gunshot wounds more effectively than paramedics.
There is no doubt that spending your working day preparing potentially to take another person’s life is a very serious occupation. I didn’t hear anyone take this lightly. The mood in between the training sessions seemed calm but the simulated events were anything but that. There are over 100 AFOs in Surrey and Sussex combined but when days off, etc are taken into account the number is not particularly high in my opinion. Gatwick Airport police are all armed, of course.
The training day had two groups of trainees with about 12 in each. Everyone there, trainees, instructors and observers, was a white man except one woman trainee and one woman officer who was observing, she is considering applying to join the firearms section. More diversity would obviously be an advantage.
“Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”- Mao Zedong
The handgun that all AFOs carry at all times is the Glock 17. In the training environment they use a blue version to ensure they don’t accidentally take out the wrong weapon from the armoury.
They also use carbines which fire 5.56mm rounds which penetrate car windows, doors and people accurately at up to 300m and less precisely at 500m. AFOs also carry Tasers and another nonlethal option is the baton launcher which fires a kind of rubber bullet. This was described as like being hit by a baton: sore but less effective against drugged or drunk assailants. They also have stun grenades for clearing buildings.
My concern is about how the public are protected. Firstly, we need to be protected from armed criminals. Secondly, we need to have confidence that the police won’t kill or injure anyone unnecessarily, even criminals.
Given all the dangers and pressures of armed policing, it is vital that AFOs work well as a team. Since team members have to be interchangeable standard tactics are used for arresting people in cars, “vehicle stops” and searching buildings, “single system search”. These tactics are common across the UK so officers in different forces can theoretically quickly work alongside each other. I work for a very large airline and we operate the same way. I could fly with any of the 500+ copilots on my fleet and we would be able to work as a team straight away dealing with emergencies because we all follow standard procedures.
We saw two types of vehicle stop: compliant and enforced. There are two threat levels: low and high. They were very different experiences. The low threat compliant stop involved a lot of shouting and would be a frightening experience for an innocent driver. The police handguns and carbines were drawn and clearly threatening to the motorist who was stopped (a police officer role playing) but the safety catches were still on and the carbines were kept pointing down or away from the target. The motorist ended up being handcuffed on their knees, which would be traumatic but not fatal.
The high threat enforced stop started with a car crash, literally. It was a low speed bump but created some broken glass and a bent BMW door. The safety catches were off and the tension levels kicked up a notch. The car passenger was handcuffed face down on the wet ground in front of me. No one was injured during the training exercise but it must be a risk and in real life I expect there would be injuries even without any bullets being fired. However, nobody was shot and this reflects how things are usually done in Surrey and Sussex. The Inspector escorting me told me he has conducted these “stops” in real life but Surrey Police as a whole has only fired live rounds on two occasions in the last 10 years, causing one fatality.
The assessment of the threat level is very important too. As an airline captain I am required to react to bomb threats based on the assessment too and my actions would be very different for different threats so it is vital the assessment is accurate. (I’ve never received a bomb threat to my aircraft in 15 years, fingers crossed!).
The “single system search” is a systematic way of clearing and searching a building. It can be scaled up or down depending on how many AFOs are available. There are two types of search: emergency and deliberate. An emergency search will be when time is limited and there is a shooter or a victim which needs to be found and dealt with quickly. The training mock-up has a gantry overhead where we could observe how the teams moved from room to room. I had to wear safety goggles and ear plugs but the weapons only fired paint pellets. Like the vehicle stops, this involved a lot of shouting. I think the communication between the AFOs was more standardised here because it is clearly critical they know what their colleagues are doing. The risk of “blue on blue” is very high. The bullets can pass through doors and people so AFOs have to ensure they don’t hit each other.
There was plenty of time today to discuss with officers what they see as the threat. This was similar to the analysis by trainees at the Taser training I observed. EMDs, Emotionally or Mentally Distressed people, cause the vast majority of their callouts, 21 out of 23 was cited. If people are not thinking rationally it must be very difficult to stop them harming others without using force. Some of them may hope to commit “suicide by cop”. I really feel for police officers who have to deal with violent irrational people, I know I couldn’t do that part of their job. Dealing with armed bank robbers is far easier to understand. The vehicle stops simulated this and reminded me of The Professionals. In reality, police work of this kind is messy and decisions are difficult to take.
Some vehicle stops in real life are totally innocent people. A “partial index” was mentioned where part of a car registration was recorded at a crime. When a car was stopped by armed police looking for the criminals it turned out to be a nun!
I think the threat in Surrey is different to the threat in London. Also, I feel Surrey Police train hard and fight easy. They don’t appear to be as trigger-happy as the Met. In the whole of Surrey there are only 2 ARVs, Armed Response Vehicles, on constant patrol. I suggested they are like Trident submarines, constantly at sea, providing a defence. For over a million residents, this does not seem like militarisation.
Surrey Police’s armed officers provide the counter terrorism function for our county too. This is why there are no officers in my photos and I haven’t named anyone operational. The terrorism threat against British police officers was recently raised and I respect the risk these officers take by being possible targets. I haven’t described in detail the tactics because it is not totally relevant and I don’t want to help anyone counter them.
It was pointed out that there are many legally-held firearms and shotguns in Surrey. As someone who has been threatened by one, over the phone, I appreciate that threat. As an aside, I was glad to hear from Yvette Cooper, Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary, at the annual conference that, under Labour, Surrey Police will be able to charge applicants for shotgun certificates the full cost of providing them. Prices have been frozen for so long it costs the force a huge amount every year processing shotgun permits. That money should go on policing.
Guns in Public
This debate started with people objecting to armed officers bringing guns to routine calls. This happens sometimes in Surrey but not in Sussex. We discussed how the public react. It was suggested that, if noticed, it could be a conversation piece for young men (the subject of role models and inspiration for young men must be addressed in future). I am concerned about inherent implicit threats of violence. However, if a domestic abuse incident is in progress and the “box is empty” apart from the ARV then it makes sense for them to deploy to it.
“One man with a gun can control 100 without one”- Vladimir Lenin
Avoid, Trap, Mitigate
This is our mantra when flying airliners. Sending armed officers to routine calls because no one else is available is “mitigating”. It is an expensive and less effective way of working. I need to understand why we cannot work at the “avoid” level. We need to work at this level for the mentally distressed people who cause the majority of armed police callouts too. They should be receiving help earlier. Ending up in a police cell or being shot by police is the outcome which must be avoided.
It was fascinating to watch armed police training today. In particular I enjoyed discussing these issues with trainees and instructors, they clearly think deeply about the implications of how they carry out their jobs. I am now coming to expect this from police I meet in person. My two objectives are to understand the effect on public safety of a) stopping dangerous people and b) use of violent police action beyond that absolutely necessary.
I am very grateful to Surrey Police and in particular the officers who chatted to me today. I have learned a lot today but my research is not yet complete.
“Force and mind are opposites; morality ends where a gun begins.”- Ayn Rand