- By Joshua E. KeatingJoshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.
This week’s riots in Britain, which have spread from the north London neighborhood of Tottenham to the cities of Birmingham, Liverpool, and Manchester, were sparked by the Aug. 4 shooting by police of a 29-year old London man. The victim, Mark Duggan, was carrying a weapon, though tests show he did not fire it. But Britain has long been well known for having an unarmed police force. Is that still the case?
Yes, but there are an increasing number of exceptions. The unarmed bobby on the beat is an image as quintessentially British as Big Ben or the Beatles and — with the exception of Northern Ireland, where police have been routinely armed for years — the vast majority of officers, including Scotland Yard, still make do with nonlethal weapons like batons, pepper spray, and gruff admonishments.
This hasn’t always been the case. London police were issued revolvers in 1884 following the murder of two officers, though it wasn’t mandatory: They could choose whether or not to carry them. The weapons were formally retired in 1936. During World War II, police were issued firearms in case of German invasion, but these were never to be used on patrol.
The police department has gone back and forth on the issue over the decades. Following a number of shootings of police during the 1950s and 1960s, about 17 percent of London police officers became authorized to carry firearms, but many licenses were revoked during the 1980s following a series of shootings by police. An increasing number of specially trained officers are now also armed with Tasers, though their use has been criticized by human rights groups.
As of 2009, there were 6,868 officers authorized to carry weapons in England and Wales. Within London’s Metropolitan Police, out of a force of 33,000, around 2,700 officers were authorized to carry guns, though, unlike American cops, the vast majority of those aren’t armed on a regular basis. Over 80 percent of British police officers say that despite increasing levels of violent crime, they don’t want to see all officers armed. The issue often re-emerges as a topic of public debate, especially after the killing of a police officer, such as the 2005 killing of 38-year old West Yorkshire constable Sharon Beshenivsky during an armed robbery. Thankfully, this is pretty rare. Between 1900 and 2006, only 67 British police officers were killed by firearms, excluding Northern Ireland.
The London police’s specialized firearms unit, today known as CO19, dates back to 1966. The purpose of the unit is to provide firearms training to the rest of the force and tactical support when necessary. In 1991, the unit introduced armed response vehicles, specially modified police cars that are able to rapidly respond to gun crimes or provide backup on dangerous assignments such as drug raids.
While armed operations have become more common, they are still pretty rare. According to official statistics, firearms were authorized for 19,951 operations in England and Wales between April 1, 2008, and March 31, 2009, but weapons were fired in four instances.
The unit came under heavy criticism in 2005 following the shooting death of Jean Charles de Menezes, an unarmed Brazilian man who was mistaken for a suicide bomber in the wake of the London Underground terrorist attacks. The Metropolitan Police was fined, but no charges were ever filed against any of the officers.
In 2009, the CO19 began the unprecedented practice of conducting armed patrols in the Brixton, Haringey, and Tottenham neighborhoods, in response to an increase in violent crime in those areas. The officers were charged with carrying out weapons sweeps to deter gang members from carrying firearms. Previously, the unit had only been called in to respond to reported crimes. The program was controversial ever since it was announced — including within the police department. And, with Duggan have been shot during one of these patrols, the act that triggered the ongoing riots, it’s likely to become even more so.