Armed cops mistake

It’s bad enough having armed cops in Parliament, airports and outside embassies (and the US ambassador’s residence in Regent’s Park which I cycle past frequently. Now they are at London railway stations. The logic of this escapes me. I will expound on this further in a forthcoming Rail column, but the occasions on which they would be able – or need – to shoot seem rare indeed, and the risk to the public from a stray bullet extremely high.

The explanation given by the security lobby is that they are a deterrent. But to what sort of terrorist. IRA style (now largely defunct) is to leave suitcases or parcels, suicide bombers don’t give a damn and can detonate themselves wherever they want and those intent on a Mumbai-style assault with all kinds of weaponry would hardly be deterred by the odd aageing copper armed with a gun he has never fired in anger.

There is a big downside, too. These guns make us feel scared, intimidated, at risk – they are like the daft announcements about ‘take a minute to read the safety instructions’ on trains where the risk of being involved in an accident is in the order of 100 million to one, and even then the sfety instructions, if remembered, are likely to be irrelevant. Every time the security services make a decision in the intersts of ‘making us safer’, they take away a bit of the pleasure of living in a modern western democracy. Gun totting policeman are, in fact, quite the opposite. They make us feel more at risk and, crucially, they serve no purpose.

  • Are you saying that if there is a risk, then taking precautions against that risk increases fear rather than reducing it?

    Do you really think that the risk is higher if armed police are present than if they are not?!

    You say that police will rarely have to draw their guns. Quite right – and hopefully they never will.

    I expect similar arguments may have been used in Mumbai, allowing terrorists to roam relatively unchallenged around the station shooting people.

    Of course if you have better information than the police on what form future attacks might take, you should let them know.

  • Christian Wolmar

    I am saying that having gun-totting policve degrades civil society. Given the various terrorist scenarios, it is very unlikely that they will make any difference to an incident and they may even add risk with stray bullets. We have to ask ourselves what sort of society we want to live in. I don’t want one where the police are routinely armed.

  • Anonymous

    Not just guns, Christian – it is these so called anti-terrorism measures in general.  A bit like in Glasgow where to coin a phrase, these wretched bollards are coming up like mushrooms in October.  Both Central and Queen Street railway stations have them now, as do the two Subway stations in the city centre (Buchanan St and St Enoch).  The chance of an attack on a provincial city is very low, if everyone is honest.

    Contrast this with New York where I was the other weekend (which lets face it, knows more about terrorism than anywhere else in the western world) – sure there are airport-style security checks to get into things like the Empire State Building and the 9/11 memorial park – but apart from the police and their standard issue six-shooters, I never saw anyone carrying these formidable looking rifles.  I didn’t see a single one in either Newark or JFK airports for that matter!

    Coming back home, Glasgow Airport (very quiet with only small amount of traffic coming in as it was during the day, midweek) had armed police roaming around with their big rifles, and you have to ask – why such a big police presence at a provincial airport?  Yes, there was the 2007 car bomb attack but would all these police present have prevented something similar happening AND, given the nightmare arrangements that all British airports now have to allow vehicles to access the front of terminal buildings, it’d be a pretty difficult attack to do again.  As you say, all it does is intimidate

  • Ken Westcar

    Christian, it’s imported from the USA where citizens are continually assailed by “fear and threat” messages. It has actually nothing to do with elevated risk of terrorist attack but more to allow government security agencies to justify their existence (and for security contractors to pocket huge sums of money from taxpayers).
    If the same measures were taken to protect people from road fatalities there would be few, if any vehicles on our highways.They say, globally, over one million people each year die from vehicle-related accidents with several times this suffering life-altering injuries. We are looking for terrorists in the wrong place…………….. 

  • Surprised

    What is the point of having a police force if they cannot protect the public? It would be grossly irresponsible to use unarmed police officers against terrorists armed with assault rifles wouldn’t it?
    They are very highly trained and risks to the public are minimal used. The bullets are designed to stay in the body of their target and not pass through and hit anyone else.
    Remember that we have no real idea who is in this country, we are a high priority target for Islamic terrorism, the Olympic games mean an attack is almost a certainty (let’s be realistic shall we?).
    Can you imagine what would be said if, knowing the very real threat, not enough was done to protect the public? Heads would roll at high levels (rightly)
    Let us use a bit of common sense please!

  • JG

    Quite right, this is done for show, for intimidation even. The whole subject of Terrorism is very murky indeed and is probably best left uninvestigated for most people who don’t wish their whole World view turned on it’s head!

  • Tunneller

    Totally agree with this article. Wandering about randomly with large guns in a public place is a recipe for disaster. One badly packed chair leg or a dodgy gait and its game over. Their presence does nothing to reassure the travelling public about anything and just chips away a little bit more at our democratic principles. To my mind it speaks volumes about the paucity of information the police have about threats to the transport network. How about targetting the far more likely scenario of gangs running amok on the concourse with kitchen knives. Poor effort chaps.

  • Anonymous

    I think I told this anecdote on another thread ages ago, but worth saying again – I flew to the USA about 4 years ago during a time of “heightened security measures”, and all it amounted to was a couple of heavies in smart suits standing at the beginning of the check-in queue asking everyone the three standard questions a check-in agent asks you anyway about hand luggage, packing your bag yourself blah blah blah….later on once airside, the same motley crew is waiting for you at the end of the jetty asking you what you bought in the departure lounge and are planning to take on the aircraft.

    Just how exactly this was supposed to improve security I have yet to fathom…….as Ken Westcar says below – a nice little earner for private security firms!  All this is nothing more than a cheap way to make it look as though they are doing something.

  • “Totally agree with this article. Wandering about randomly with large guns in a public place is a recipe for disaster.” What disaster? Police have been similarly armed at Heathrow and Gatwick for many years without even the hint of an incident.

    “Wandering” “randomly” “large guns” are emotive phrases devoid of fact or evidence.

    Try  “Targetted patrols with effective weapons in selected public places is one way to protect the public”.

    I too am against routine arming of the police. It reassures me to know that armed policing in the UK is only allowed in carefully selected and targetted situations, and that the officers concerned are trained to a fantastically high standard. I would have thought that a nutter with an AK47 letting rip in a public place was a real risk – it has happened before in international airports. I don’t really want the response to involve batons or pepper sprays! Better still, I’d like the terrorists to think twice on the basis that before they shoot anyone they may well be killed. Ideally, deterrence will work and the guns will never be used.

    Oh yes, and I don’t think Glasgow thinks of itself as a provinicial airport, any more than St. Pancras is a local railway station!

  • fledermaus

    Wait for the vile fascist olympics ……
    THe whole of London is dreading it.
    No-one (aprt form the politicians and some corrupt businesses (sometimes both) wanted the thing in the first place….

  • Anonymous

    Security. Theatre.

  • Anonymous

    I was in La Rochelle during a music festival last year and there were at least six SNCF security staff at the railway station.  Each was armed, uniformed, tough looking and courteous.  I didn’t feel threatened or worried by their presence.  It’s the norm there.  

    Armed police in the UK is the exception rather than the rule and I question what effective purpose they have at railway stations.  If and when armed police start patrolling Bristol Temple Meads (in addition to Bristol Airport) it will be clear that the perceived security risks will have increased. I could worry more about my safety being in the centre of Bristol late on a Friday or Saturday evening than I would waiting to travel on a train at Temple Meads. The points about the risks caused by the motorists are well made.  

  • Thomasallen

    Bordeaux St Jean station (and others in France) is patrolled by joint teams of military and police, the former armed with assault rifles. Here in Portugal our local non-league football team is compelled to pay for three armed cops to be present at every home game to control a crowd of about 150. Similar overkill. If armed police are now to be routinely stationed at UK railway stations, perhaps HMG would let us in as to what new threat they are there to prevent.

  • Windsorian

    Some years ago I was in Israel on holiday and only once felt threatened by the young male and female conscripts who wander around in uniform with their guns at all times.

    Late one night I was on a bus (not tourist coach) from Masada back to Eliat and we stopped at a security check point somewhere near the southern end of the Dead Sea.

    Several armed young soldiers got on to check identity cards and all was sweetness and light until they noticed a group of young Arab boys on the back seat.

    Immediately the tone of the soldiers voice changed and there was a loud click of a gun being cocked; you could have cut the air in the bus with a knife!

  • Peter

    All too true, Christian.

    This is what is called “security theatre”.

    It lets the officials justify their salaries and ensures that the public are cowed and subservient – and ready for further erosion of their freedoms.

  • John

    I don’t much like it either Christian, but I think it’s worth acknowledging that there is a genuine worry and concern about a Mumbai-style attack in the UK, and in London in particular. How this is best dealt with is another matter. London has long had police teams in armed response vehicles, some of which spend some of their time out and about ready to respond to situations, so a few specialist police being routinely armed is nothing new. The big difference there is that the armed policemen and their guns generally stay in the vehicle.

  • Fandroid

    I arrived at Glasgow Airport yesterday. I was unpleasantly surprised to see three be-suited (apparently unarmed) Strathclyde cops staring at us just after passport control. Then there was a massive notice reciting all the reasons why the same police force might nab you!  The normal uniformed armed airport police in Arrivals looked innocuous in comparison. It’s noticable that since the terrorist attack in 2007 a vast number of stainless steel bollards have appeared to prevent a similar ram-raid. When arriving by plane at Heathrow, I rarely notice the police, although I assume they are there. I once accidentally wandered into the El-Al  check-in area, where policemen and weapons were very visible indeed.

    Back when Paris was suffering quite a serious bombing campaign, there were armed army patrols (4 or 5 strong) in Gare De Lyon, each accompanied by a single gendarme.  

    Unless there is real specific intelligence, I see no reason for armed police at railway stations. Just more security personnel on trains (especially late at night) and in stations targetting anti-social behaviour.

  • Fandroid

    I arrived at Glasgow Airport yesterday. I was unpleasantly surprised to see three be-suited (apparently unarmed) Strathclyde cops staring at us just after passport control. Then there was a massive notice reciting all the reasons why the same police force might nab you!  The normal uniformed armed airport police in Arrivals looked innocuous in comparison. It’s noticable that since the terrorist attack in 2007 a vast number of stainless steel bollards have appeared to prevent a similar ram-raid. When arriving by plane at Heathrow, I rarely notice the police, although I assume they are there. I once accidentally wandered into the El-Al  check-in area, where policemen and weapons were very visible indeed.

    Back when Paris was suffering quite a serious bombing campaign, there were armed army patrols (4 or 5 strong) in Gare De Lyon, each accompanied by a single gendarme.  

    Unless there is real specific intelligence, I see no reason for armed police at railway stations. Just more security personnel on trains (especially late at night) and in stations targetting anti-social behaviour.

  • @twitter-28131012:disqus  “Ideally, deterrence will work and the guns will never be used.”

    There is no deterrent to a suicide bomber and anyone intent on shooting members of the public in an attack would go to places where there are no armed police.

    Therefore visibly armed police are not a deterrent.

  •  @f460dd0b3f3aa28109735655182cc099:disqus  “When arriving by plane at Heathrow, I rarely notice the police, although I assume they are there.”

    Almost twenty years ago I was at Heathrow taking photos. Amongst my kit was a monopod. As I walked through one of the terminals two armed policemen came towards me, one of them noticing the monopod.

    I was quick to assure him that it was not loaded and we passed without further ado.

  • montmorency

    Yes, to echo others, it’s not about frightening the terrorists, it’s about frightening us.
    Sadly.

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