Three police forces are considering plans to give guns to some uniformed bobbies on the beat in order to respond more quickly to a crisis situation, such as a terrorist attack.
The forces concerned are predominantly rural and senior officers believe that their geography could mean that the current system of specialist firearms officers could lead to delays in getting them to the scene.
One option under consideration is for some officers to openly wear guns on their belt; another is for the guns to be stored securely in patrol cars. Any change would be in addition to having elite officers with guns in armed response vehicles.
The three forces have not been identified, but one of them is believed to be Devon and Cornwall police, whose Chief Constable Shaun Sawyer said: “We have a terrorism threat, and then an increasing threat from serious and organised crime – gangs are coming into the South West from London and the North West – and [there are] copycat risks from people with mental health issues.”
Police chiefs will meet in January 2018 to discuss the issues. A paper called “Arming the police” was debated by police chiefs at a meeting in October, which led to a small number of forces exploring options, up to and including the “routine arming” of some officers.
The new plans follow a review of every police forces’ ability to respond to gun violence and how long armed officers would take to get to incidents. That exercise found that some forces would take longer than others. More rural forces are deemed to face a lower threat of terrorist attack than urban counterparts.
Devon and Cornwall has 3,000 police officers who cover an area of 4,000 sq miles. The population of 1.7 million people swells in the summer months with 11 million visitors.
The force’s armed response vehicles usually carry two officers. The large area that the force covers means getting enough armed officers to the scene of a shooting could give attackers a long time before they were challenged by enough officers with firearms.
Sawyer said: “The current configuration [of armed officers] is not right. The response times are too long. The disparity is too great compared to other forces. We are actively working with the national counter-terrorism infrastructure to finalise our understanding of the threat and response times.”
Sawyer added: “We have a high rate of mental health issues and more firearms in our counties of Devon and Cornwall than others.”