In light of the recent spate of spree shootings in America and the on-going development of the United Kingdom’s response to other Mumbai-style incidents, Dr Dave Sloggett exclusively interviews ACPO armed policing lead Deputy Chief Constable Simon Chesterman:
The gun attack that claimed the lives of twenty school children and six members of staff at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut was a shocking event. How does the event and subsequent debate relate to the current situation in the United Kingdom?
There are a number of similarities between this incident and other spree shootings the world over. The majority involve lone actors who had lawful access to the firearms they used during the attack, they tend to relate to mental health as opposed to terrorism and the offenders tend to commit suicide prior to capture. The issue for the United States is even more acute as military grade weaponry and ammunition is readily available. The key for the UK is an effective balance between an individual’s human rights and the necessity to share information between the NHS (GPs in particular) and police Firearms Licensing departments so that proper decisions can be made.
History shows us that these tragic incidents will occur and, as they have tended to happen in more rural areas, police have to maintain appropriate levels of preparedness in terms of response times and effective tactics.
What impact does that rural bias to such events have on resource management?
It means that geography has to be taken into account in assessing threat and risk and in developing firearms mobilisation plans. Since Hungerford the advantage we now have is UK wide Armed Response Vehicle coverage. All police forces deploy ARVs 24/7 and take account of the requirement to respond in both urban and rural environments. Historically ARVs were used more in a containment role, now they are all equipped and trained to respond to ‘active shooters’. The added advantage is that, as warranted officers, they can be deployed in support of local policing when not engaged on firearms operations.
Over and above ARVs most forces have firearms officers with enhanced skills. They have also received the active shooter training and can come in and support ARVs in a second wave of response. Clearly the response to such an incident would involve mutual aid and a great deal of work has taken place to deliver operational interoperability to ensure that firearms officers from different forces can work seamlessly together.
After the terrorist attack in Mumbai measures started to be put in place in the United Kingdom to address a similar event. How are those progressing?
Mumbai brought the concept of a marauding terrorist firearms attack into sharp focus. Previously, the focus had been on vehicle borne and person borne explosive devices. The prospect of facing multiple offenders with no expectation of survival, with military training and armed with fully automatic weaponry has dictated a sea change in the UK police firearms response. Progress has been swift and impressive thanks to pressures such as the threat level to the UK, at the time, and Olympic planning.
The role of the Armed Response Vehicle officers has changed significantly with enhanced weaponry, ammunition, ballistic protection and new more progressive tactics designed to close down and deal with the threat. The more specialist firearms roles have received the same active shooter training programme and our Counter Terrorist Specialist Firearms Officers are capable of a range of tactics on a par with military Special Forces. The firearms training curriculum is now more prescriptive and national firearms interoperability has been significantly enhanced as a result.
The active shooter programme has added benefits and the UK has never been better prepared in respect of our overall firearms response. In future I am convinced that there are economies of scale, but a strategic national approach is required in order to avoid a situation whereby individual forces make decisions based upon assessments of local threat and risk.
After the incident involving Derek Bird in Cumbria in June 2010 what lessons have been learnt with respect to the operational deployment of firearms teams?
Cumbria Constabulary responded well and the firearms response was reasonable in the circumstances. From start to finish this incident lasted less than two hours and firearms teams were very close behind him when Bird entered woodland and took his own life.
Several elements made the job of the police harder, for example technical issues with identifying armed assets from other forces deployed on mutual aid and a misunderstanding of the different risk thresholds between the police and ambulance service. Much of this has now been resolved.
The lasting lesson for me is never underestimate geography; for understandable reasons many of our planning assumptions are based upon densely populated urban areas whereas the reality is that incidents such as Cumbria, Dunblane, Hungerford, Moat and Utoya Island in Norway have occurred in remote locations and we need to consider this and be prepared to respond.
Have the dreadful events in Norway in the summer of 2011 had any impact on the ways in which police firearms teams are deployed in the United Kingdom?
UK police firearms officers are highly trained professionals and I have every confidence in their ability to deal with an individual like Anders Breivik. The key is mobilisation, particularly to remote locations, and work is ongoing with forces to take account of remote locations within firearms mobilisation plans at force, regional and national levels. This work involves a variety of transportation options including air support.
What are the implications for multi-agency partners that arise from the government’s push towards interoperability as far as police firearms teams are concerned?
Interoperability between partner agencies is broader than just firearms; however, this is clearly a high risk area. It is fair to say that significant progress has already been made with ambulance and fire stepping up and working alongside us to evacuate casualties and preserve life. Multi agency interoperability is now led at Ministerial level with a main element being the Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Programme (JESIP) led by DCC Craig Denholm.
Whilst terrible events such as Dunblane and Hungerford are mercifully rare in the United Kingdom what measures are taken to maintain skill levels for armed officers?
To ensure that the UK police firearms response remains match fit and proportionate, assessments of threat and risk are refreshed annually. This feeds the National Police Firearms Training Curriculum which sets out the role profiles for armed officers and the training required. UK police firearms officers receive some of the best training in the world and are required to maintain their operational and occupational competence. In plain English this means that they have to regularly reaccredit on weapon handling, tactics and knowledge as well as deploy operationally. Standards are maintained through the licensing regime which is overseen by the College of Policing.
In your time as the ACPO Lead on Armed policing have you seen any notable changes in the ways in which firearms are used?
Throughout the past five years I have seen major changes. In summary, mainly as a result of the UK crime and CT threat levels and preparation for the Olympics, we are now better equipped, have more effective and progressive tactics and have much improved national interoperability.
I have the greatest admiration for police firearms officers, they are volunteers and on a daily basis they put themselves in harms way to protect the public. They also put their liberty and their jobs on the line for us and are expected to make split second decisions, under intense pressure, and these decisions will then be intensely and forensically scrutinised and analysed for years to come. Of course this is legally and morally necessary, but it is worth remembering that carrying a firearm operationally is a big ‘ask’. I am now engaged in some national work examining the future of the police firearms response and I am convinced that we can get even better and use our resources more efficiently.
Tasers are now increasingly becoming a part of the landscape of United Kingdom policing. Has their introduction created any specific problems for police officers as far as the rules of engagement are concerned?
Tasers remain emotive and subject to misleading and inaccurate press coverage. For example it is often referred to as a “50,000 volt stun gun”, in truth the Taser only produces 50,000 volts for a fraction of a second to allow the electricity to connect between the probes, when travelling across the human body the voltage drops to 1200volts.
It should also be pointed out that volts are not dangerous, it is amperes that matter and the average a Taser emits is 0.0021amps, less than a Christmas tree bulb. It is the way in which the electricity oscillates that has the effect on the human body. In summary, the risk from the electricity is very low. The risk associated with Taser is from secondary injuries caused by falling over and this is central to the training.
The rules of engagement are clear, officers are taught to use the National Decision Making Model and they are individually accountable in law for the amount of force they use. Taser is often the less injurious solution; take the recent incident outside Buckingham Palace as an example, what was the alternative: a police dog, batons, conventional firearms?