Blog: “Armed officers shoulder a huge burden - we should share it”

05 December 2018

Steve Hartshorn

PFEW Firearms Lead Steve Hartshorn

As the debate about armed officers patrolling our streets hits the headlines again our new Firearms lead Steve Hartshorn explains why he thinks firearms officers need all the support they can get.

The latest crime figures show that serious violent crime in this county has again increased. The question uttered by everyone from police officers to politicians, from judges to grieving parents is how do we combat this catastrophic crime trend?

If I’m honest I don’t profess to have the all the answers, if there was a panacea I am sure it would have been implemented by now, although I’m fairly sure that the decrease in police officer numbers is directly linked to the rise.

I was taught prevention is better than cure – but prevention cannot always be quantified so is often disregarded.

What we do need is more local engagement between the public and police to break down barriers.

You often hear parents telling children to behave or the police will ‘take them away’. Surely they should be teaching them to talk to police and normalise the interaction – something some adults could also try!

One option is to increase the number of armed officers on our streets as a visible deterrent, but traditionally that’s not an approach the public - or indeed warranted officers - have favoured.

Armed policing always seems to capture the media’s attention. Just this week the bulletins were packed with the news of AFOs having to take the difficult decision to shoot a suspect in South West London.

This comes just days after Cressida Dick – the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police – seemed to suggest that armed officers could soon be seen on foot patrol in high crime areas in London.

And although her assistant commissioner later clarified that this did not equate to a change of policy and that any deployments would be “for a limited time only and consultation with local commanders” and after community impact assessments had been carried out - it got me thinking about why the mere suggestion of having armed police officers on foot patrol could cause such a media storm?  And about the relatively small number of armed officers who are tasked with actually performing this difficult role?

Firearms officers do a unique job within policing in England and Wales. Let’s not sugar-coat the pill, they are trained to deal with immediate threats to life and every time they sign out their weapons they realise there is possibility that one day they may be required to pull the trigger. That may well mean that a person dies and such decisions are never taken lightly.

They are an extraordinary group of men and women and I was lucky to have been one of the few to have performed this role as an Armed Response Officer. It is so important for me as Firearms Lead for the Federation that I represent them to the best of my ability.

I take over the role from PFEW Vice Chair, Ché Donald and I would like to give my upmost thanks to him – he has done so much for armed officers in England and Wales and pay tribute to him for all his hard work.

I know what it takes do this specialist role, the physical and mental toll it can take - not only the officers themselves but their family and friends as well. I want to ensure they have all the support and assistance they need.

Full firearms kit, depending on the role or deployment, can tip the scales at up to four stone (25kg). Add to that the weight of expectation heaped on you by the service and society alike, it’s certainly a heavy burden to shoulder.

I do have a real concerns about what the reaction of society, the media and investigators alike would be if/when officers have to shoot a young person in possession of a lethal weapon.

No doubt the pressure on them will increase and may well further harm the ongoing work to recruit and retain other armed officers.

I consider being a firearms officer the best job in policing but I know there are times when it can feel like the worst job in the world.

As soon as an officer discharges their weapon they know every thought in their decision making process and every millisecond of their actions will be analysed to the Nth degree during an investigation which can take months or even years to conclude.

They are often restricted from firearms roles, unable to do the job they trained for, just for doing to job they trained for.

It can be a very lonely place and the work the Police Firearms Officers’ Association (PFOA) and the Federation does with the Welfare Support Programme is so vital. I know for a fact this scheme has saved lives.

I am dedicated to ensuring Post Incident Procedures are the best they possibly can be to make sure that the officers involved are safeguarded and their welfare paramount during what can be an incredibly stressful time.

The decision to shoot someone is never taken casually and the officer, their families and everyone effected, will experience the ramifications of a split second decision for the rest of their lives.

So I am here to be their voice, and their representative, to make sure that we as a Federation – working with the PFOA and others - do all we can to help and support those officers who choose to take on this unique role in protecting our society.