Fear of terrorism should not prompt us to arm every police officer

20170403_185738-1.jpgHOW do you stop two neds stabbing each other? Don’t skip to the bottom of the page looking for a punchline – it’s a serious question. I ask because a member of the Scottish Police Federation (SPF) is grappling with this problem. Indeed, it sounds like Chris Thomson might, in the course of his duties, be grappling with neds. He doesn’t have the right tools for this job, he says, let alone the job of fighting terrorists.

Well that escalated quickly. One second the discussion was about routine police call-outs to serious but contained violent incidents, the next it had switched to the chaotic unknown of a pre-planned atrocity like the attack on Westminster. That’s quite a leap. It’s a leap that demands further scrutiny.

Of course the horrifying death of PC Keith Palmer was on the mind of the rank-and-file officers who gathered for the SPF annual conference this week. And as a civilian, I can’t pretend to understand how it must feel to not only run towards life-threatening situations, but to do so knowing that in many cases your mere arrival, in a uniform, may increase the risk of violence.

The voices of officers must be heard in any debate about policing policy, but a respect for their bravery must not get in the way of critically assessing their arguments, especially when the discussion is about life-or-death issues such as weapon-carrying.

The voices of officers must be heard in any debate about policing policy, but a respect for their bravery must not get in the way of critically assessing their arguments

Calum Steele, the head of the SPF, told the conference unarmed officers in Scotland were being sent to incidents involving not only knives but firearms, too – a situation he described as “disgraceful” and “unforgivable”. But then, like Thomson, in the blink of an eye he switched to talking about the Westminster attack. “We don’t have anything that would allow us to deal with the immediacy of a very quick attack such as that which unfolded in London,” he said.

The headlines, naturally, reflected this statement. The message was clear: Scotland is unprepared for a terror attack. Talk about tempting fate.

But Steele failed to spell out exactly what kind of “anything” would have been required to halt an attack that lasted for less than two minutes and began with a deadly road traffic incident that could only be recognised as terrorism after the fact. What he also failed to clarify was whether Scotland was uniquely unprepared to deal with such an attack; whether we are any less prepared than England, France, Belgium, Germany or any of our other European neighbours.

The message was clear: Scotland is unprepared for a terror attack. Talk about tempting fate

Colleagues at the conference made more concrete proposals. Chris Thomson argued that every officer should have “at least a Taser”, referring to the electroshock weapons designed to incapacitate, while SPF vice-chair David Hamilton pointed to the Norwegian model in which all officers are firearms trained and have guns locked away in their cars.

What remains unclear is whether either approach would have made the slightest difference to how events unfolded on March 22, including the fatal stabbing of PC Palmer. Which is not to say these proposals should be dismissed out of hand, only that a cynical person might question them being discussed in the same breath as the Westminster attack.

When in 2014 it emerged armed officers were supporting colleagues on routine duties in the Highlands there was an outcry

We learned this week that officers guarding the Scottish Parliament will be given Tasers, and it was announced last summer that the number of armed police was being increased in response to the threat of terrorism (bringing the total up to about 500, representing fewer than 1 in 40 officers). However, there seems to be no public or political appetite to go much further. Indeed, when in 2014 it emerged armed officers were supporting colleagues on routine duties in the Highlands there was an outcry, with local politicians expressing concern that the newly established Police Scotland was adopting a heavy-handed, one-size-fits-all approach.

So what about those knife-wielding neds? Would officers with Tasers be better equipped to stop them stabbing each other? Perhaps – but the use of that language to describe them should give us serious pause.

We can all picture the scene Thomson described, but referring to young men as “neds” strips them of their humanity, and talking about them “stabbing each other” conjures a scene of mindless recreational violence in which both are equally culpable. It suggests there’s no point trying to use traditional police tactics to defuse the situation, any more than it would be worth trying to negotiate with an escaped tiger, or a “maniac”, or a terrorist.

But these young men are human beings. They are sons, brothers, nephews, perhaps even fathers. They are citizens, too. Of course police officers should be empowered to defend themselves in the face of clear threats to their own safety, but they must not lose sight of the humanity of those they encounter while on duty.

Tasers may be described as a form of “non-lethal” force, but that doesn’t mean no-one has ever died from having electrodes fired into their flesh. The use of a Taser is clearly preferable in almost every instance to the use of a gun, but that doesn’t mean it is preferable to using no weapon at all.

Terrorists seek to divide and alienate the communities they target, by fostering fear and suspicion. It is right that police tactics and resources are kept under review at a time of global insecurity, but any response that increases public fear of the police – the very people assigned to keep us safe – risks playing right into their hands.

A version of this article first appeared in The National.

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