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