Understanding pressures on armed officers

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A decision whether to shoot or not to shoot is made by a police authorised firearms officer (AFO) in a fraction of a second, often in very stressful and chaotically dynamic circumstances.

The scrutiny process which now follows these life or death decisions is making the role a very unattractive proposition, especially as it’s a voluntary one.

The authority for an AFO to be armed is usually granted by a senior police officer. Although, AFOs 
patrolling in armed response vehicles can self authorise in certain circumstances. These authorities can be granted in situations where the available information is very unclear. For example, ‘initial reports shots have been fired during a bank robbery’ or information ‘a member of the public thinks they have seen a gun in a car driven past them’. Even if these authority decisions were capable of being made in slow time by qualified human rights lawyers, the hindsight brigade which pops up after each police shooting would still criticise and find unrealistic fault. The decision as to whether an AFO should actually pull the trigger is now a minefield of legal, moral and tactical issues.

If the AFO hesitates in taking a shot, an innocent member of the public, or even they themselves, may end up being killed. If the AFO misinterprets a situation and shoots too quickly, then they could end up facing a murder charge.

It may have reached the point where AFOs should now attend firearms incidents in a minibus, as they need to convey with them their lawyers, an investigator from the Independent Police Complaints Commission, which now wants to keep the officers separate and manage the initial scene immediately after any shooting. Also, they should carry a film crew to record the incident from every angle and perhaps an independent representative from human rights organisation Liberty. The thing is, even if that was possible, allegations would still be made about a police shooting. It is right police shootings are properly scrutinised, but the bandwagon created following the shooting of Mark Duggan, is leading to AFOs who fire a shot being treated as if they were murder suspects.

The scrutiny process into police shootings must be balanced and take into proper account the challenges faced by an AFO and the police. Otherwise there may be no volunteers willing to do a challenging and very dangerous job.