Why are we arming the British Transport Police?

No good reasons or good evidence have been disclosed.

When the government announced that the British Transport Police were going to gain "armed capability" it all seemed rather depressing.

In part, this adverse reaction was because the steady creep of arming civilian police officers was now almost complete, as the BTP is effectively the last police force without its own armed officers; in part, it was because of the memories of the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell Tube Station; and in part, it was because of the truth universally acknowledged that any uniformed person at a train station will invariably lack any common sense.

Accordingly, it was not news that was immediately encouraging, and it certainly was not something that made one feel safer.

However, one must put aside prejudices and see if such a significant development was needed.

One would think that there would be good reason for arming the BTP; that it must have been a thought through process.

Let's start with the ministerial statement, which reads:

The Government is committed to the security of the country and as such keeps our capabilities under constant review. As part of this, I am today announcing, with the agreement of my Right Honourable Friend the Home Secretary, that the security of the railways and London Underground will be further enhanced by the development of a British Transport Police (BTP) armed capability that will be deployed as appropriate in response to the terrorism threat level at any given time.

The Government has been considering the resilience of the overall police armed capability and has concluded that it would be beneficial to enhance this by providing the BTP with an armed capability of its own. The timing of this is not as a result of any specific threat: it is a sensible and pragmatic approach to ensuring that our police forces have the right resources to be able to respond as and when needed to protect the public.

By sanctioning the development of this armed capability, we will reduce the burden on other police forces which currently provide armed support to the BTP. This is not a major new capability in terms of overall armed policing, but by training BTP officers to carry out armed patrolling of the rail network it equips BTP with a capability already available to other police forces. Armed patrols will be deployed according to operational need - it will not be a daily event to see armed officers at stations.

We will continue to work with the BTP and others to assess the use of this capability and its effectiveness and impact. I would like to reassure Parliament that this is a measured and proportionate approach to supporting the BTP in maintaining public safety on the railway.

So it would appear that it is indeed for good reason: "considering the resilience of the overall police armed capability....beneficial to enhance this by providing the BTP with an armed capability of its own... a sensible and pragmatic approach... reduce the burden on other police forces... I would like to reassure Parliament that this is a measured and proportionate approach to supporting the BTP in maintaining public safety on the railway."

I asked the BTP how much this would cost:

£1.5m including procurement / training, ongoing costs are approximately £300,000 a year.

This is a significant amount, at least at a time of substantial budget cuts across central government.

One would thereby expect that the costs of the current practice of using armed officers as necessary from other police forces would have been costed. After all, the Minister had said that it was important to "reduce the burden on other police forces". I asked the BTP how much the current practice cost them:

Armed officers from other forces regularly respond to incidents on behalf of BTP. There is no cost to BTP.

Fair enough, I thought. Perhaps it is a cost for other police forces, and not the BTP. But at least the BTP could tell me how often they do call upon armed officers from other forces over the last few years.

BTP does not have this information immediately available.

This was astonishing.

I even waited a day or two to see if they could find out. One would think that given an expensive procurement exercise, and the wider public interest in arming the police, someone at the BTP would know.

But it would seem not: nobody appeared to have this information.

However, the BTP were going to arm their police and commit to a lengthy procurement exercise anyway.

I also asked about the evidence behind some of the other contentions which had been made for arming the BTP. For example, why was it contended that the sight of armed BTP officers would "reassure the public"? What particular evidence is there for this contention?

The primary purpose is to increase resilience, improve response and deter potential terrorists. We hope that the public will feel that everything is being done to ensure their safety and security, but we are very aware of the danger of alarming rather than reassuring them. The policing style will be important and we will be endeavouring to integrate armed patrols into normal policing.

So there was a "hope" but no evidence.

What about the contention that the officers will be "an added deterrent to potential terrorists"? What particular evidence was there for this contention?

The deployment of armed officers at vulnerable locations - whether that be airports or other potential targets for terrorism is a well established response to threat.

Again, no evidence.

Importantly, the ministerial statement does not pretend that there is any specific threat to which this is a response. On closer examination the sequence of bureaucratic assertions in the rest of the ministerial statement do not appear to have any real meaning either.

All that has happened is that the BTP have taken upon themselves to ask to be armed, and at significant expense, even though they seem to have no idea how often armed assistance as ever been required in the last few years. They can only "hope" that we will be reassured.

I asked the Department of Transport for whether armed police would become as common a sight at train stations as they are at airports. Their answer:

These will be operational decisions taken by the BTP.

But as BTP stated:

Armed patrols at transport locations are not new. They are seen daily at airports throughout the UK. The deployment of highly visible armed officers is a nationally recognised operational tactic designed to provide deterrence, immediate response and reassurance.

I also asked the Department of Transport whether this cross government policy was imposed on the BTP. No, it simply came from the BTP:

Last December the BTP submitted a request to the Government for approval to strengthen their resources with an armed capability. These proposals have been carefully considered across Government before this decision was taken.

The BTP had deployed the resource argument:

Until now, armed patrols have been provided by geographic forces, which in itself is a drain on specialist resource which is under increasing demand, particularly at times when threat is heightened or specific intelligence exists. As a result of this pressure on existing resources it has been agreed that there is a need to increase the number of officers available to provide armed patrols when required.

However, as we have seen, the BTP do not seem to know the extent of this "drain" and "increasing demand". And one rather suspects the Department of Transport do not know either, and has just accepted the BTP's word for it.

So we have more armed police, and at more expense, but not in respect of any specific threat or for any apparent operational need. It may well be that there is good reason and good evidence; but this has not been disclosed.

As it is, the introduction of armed officers at the BTP is consistent with them casually wanting to have an armed unit, and the Department of Transport just as casually nodding it through. Soon, just as casually, we will undoubtedly get used to armed police at train stations and boarding trains.

And then, one day, someone will get shot.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Jeremy Corbyn's fans must learn the art of compromise

On both sides of the Atlantic, democracy is threatened by a post-truth world. 

Twenty years ago, as a new and enthusiastic Labour MP, I wrote an article for The Observer in praise of spin. I argued that if citizens are to be properly informed and engaged in their democracy, politicians - and in particular governments - have a duty to craft their messages carefully and communicate them cogently. It was a controversial notion then but less so now that we have entered the era of post-truth politics. In the old days, we used to "manage" the truth. Now we have abandoned it. 

We’ve probably come further than we think, for when truth is discarded, reason generally follows. Without a general acceptance of the broad "facts" of any matter, there can be little basis for rational debate nor, therefore, for either the consensus or the respectful disagreement which should emerge from it. Without a commitment to truth, we are free to choose and believe in our own facts and to despise the facts of others. We are free too to place our faith in leaders who make the impossible seem possible. 

We condemn the dictatorships which deny their citizens the right to informed and open debate. But in our own societies, unreasoned and often irrational politics are entering the mainstream. 

The politics of unreason

In the UK, the Leave campaign blithely wedded brazen falsehood to the fantasy that Brexit would cure all ills – and millions of voters enthusiastically suspended their disbelief.  “We want our country back” was a potent slogan - but no less vacuous than the pledge to “make America great again” on which Donald Trump has founded his election campaign. On both sides of the Atlantic, people want to take back control they know they never had nor ever will.

Both campaigns have deliberately bypassed rational argument. They play instead to the emotional response of angry people for whom reason no longer makes sense. Since the time of Plato and Aristotle, democracy’s critics have warned of the ease with which reason can be subverted and citizens seduced by the false oratory of charismatic leaders. Trump is just the latest in a long line of the demagogues they feared. He may not make it to the White House, but he has come a long way on unreasoning rhetoric - and where he leads, millions faithfully follow. He has boasted that he could commit murder on Fifth Avenue without losing votes and he may well be right.

But if Trump is extreme, he is not exceptional. He is a phenomenon of a populism of both right and left which has once more begun to challenge the principles of parliamentary democracy.

Democracy in decline

All over Europe and the United States, consumer-citizens are exasperated by democracy’s failure to meet their demands as fully and as fast as they expect. If the market can guarantee next day delivery, why can’t government? The low esteem in which elected politicians are held is only partly the consequence of their failings and failures. It is also evidence of a growing disenchantment with representative democracy itself. We do not trust our politicians to reflect our priorities. Perhaps we never did. But now we’re no longer prepared to acknowledge their unenviable duty to arbitrate between competing political, social and economic imperatives, nor ours to accept the compromises they reach - at least until the next election.

We have become protesters against rather than participants in our politics and, emboldened by hearing our chosen facts and beliefs reverberating around cyber space, have become increasingly polarised and uncompromising in our protest. 

The Trumpy Corbynites

Which brings us to Labour. Despite the obvious political differences between Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump, there are striking similarities in the movements which have coalesced around them. For many of their supporters, they can simply do no wrong; each criticism provides further evidence of a corrupt establishment’s conspiracy against them; rivals, including those who share many of their beliefs, are anathematised; unbelievers are pursued across the internet; inconvenient facts are reinterpreted or ignored; rational, civil debate is shut down or drowned out. 

There are other similarities in these insurgencies: both mistake slogans for policies and mass rallies for popular support; both are overwhelming and quite possibly destroying their own parties – and both, ultimately, are movements without practical purpose.

Trump may give vivid expression to his followers’ grievances but, other than building a wall along the Mexican border, his plans for government are obscure. Similarly, while Corbyn and his supporters know what they’re against, they have not yet articulated a clear vision of what they’re for, much less how it can be achieved. For many of them, it is enough to be "anti-Blairite". 

But in disassociating themselves from a Labour prime minister’s mistakes, they are also dismissing their party’s achievements under his leadership. Their refusal to acknowledge the need for compromise may well enable them to avoid the pitfalls of government. But government’s potential to bring about at least some of the change they want does not come without pitfalls. In wanting it all, they are likely to end up with nothing.

The art of compromise

Democracy cannot be sustained simply by what passionate people oppose. And though movements such as Momentum have important roles to play in influencing political parties, they cannot replace them. Their supporters want to be right - and they often are. But they are rarely prepared to test their principles against the practical business of government. The members of political parties want, or should want, to govern and are prepared, albeit reluctantly, to compromise – with each other, with those they seek to represent, with events -  in order to do so. Parties should listen to movements. But movements, if they are to have any practical purpose, must acknowledge that, for all its limitations, the point of politics is power.

We have to trust that the majority of American voters will reject Donald Trump. But closer to home, if Labour is to have a future as a political force, Corbyn’s supporters must learn to respect the historic purpose of the Labour party at least as much as they admire the high  principles of its current leader. There isn’t long for that realisation to take hold.

In the UK as in the US and elsewhere, we need to rediscover the importance of common cause and the art of compromise in forging it. The alternative is a form of politics which is not only post-truth, post-reason and post-purpose, but also post-democratic. 

Peter Bradley is a former MP and director of Speakers' Corner Trust, a UK charity which promotes free speech, public debate and active citizenship.