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Armed police officers don’t make me feel safer

Content warning: discussion of guns, police violence, and images of armed police.

I live in the UK. We have fairly strict laws around owning guns, and you’re unlikely to encounter a gun except on an army base or in a work of fiction.

As a result, I’m fairly sceptical of guns, and I find the sight of them unnerving. I was on holiday in Berlin recently, where most of the police officers on the street were carrying handguns, and I was jumpy whenever I passed them. The same applies when I’m in airports. I feel like this is a healthy reaction.

On occasion, I do encounter armed police officers in the UK, and it’s never pleasant.

I have no idea whether armed police actually make me safer — I’m not a crime expert, and I don’t know what gun crime statistics are in the UK. But seeing a gun is so unusual, that when I see armed police I feel less safe. Being shot at is not something I worry about in day-to-day life, except when I see an armed police officer. (Although I do know that Police Federation surveys continually show resistance to routine arming by police officers, who I’d expect to know.)

And I’m a cis white man, a group that isn’t usually profiled or targeted by police. Other people probably find it much scarier.

A month or so ago, I was waiting for a train at King’s Cross, when two officers carrying large semiautomatic guns suddenly appeared behind me. They walked straight past me, but I was briefly terrified. Another officer came up to me to explain that this was an “awareness campaign” to “make me feel safer”, even though it had the opposite effect. I politely explained this to the officer, who didn’t want to see my point of view.

On that occasion, I got on my train to Cambridge, and left the guns behind. Unfortunately, it’s followed me home.

Today I saw this tweet on my timeline:

From this week our armed officers will be carrying out more visible and proactive patrols at key sites across the county. This is not as a result of any specific intelligence or threats, but is designed to help keep you as safe as possible. Read more here…

The text of the tweet tries to be reassuring: it’s just a precaution, about our safety, not a response to a specific threat. (This doesn’t reassure me, but at least they’re trying!)

But let’s talk about that picture.

The officer is pointing the gun at somebody sitting in a car. It’s a very aggressive pose, at odds with the reassuraning tone in the rest of the tweet. You don’t point guns as a precautionary measure. You point them carefully, or not at all.

I have a small amount of gun training, because I did some CCF (Combined Cadet Force) when I was in school. And the first lesson was this: never point your gun at something you are not ready to destroy. The default holding position was with the gun facing down, finger away from the trigger. Aiming at static targets down a range was fine, but if I’d pointed it at a person, I’d have been expelled instantly. Unlike in fiction or video games, you don’t wave guns around lightly.

So to me, this picture sends a strong message: this officer is armed, and they are ready to kill the person in this car. Either that, or this officer is improperly trained. Given no other context, either scenario is horrifying, and hardly seems like an appropriate image to go with this tweet.

If you wanted a better image of armed police, it’s not hard to find one. I found this photo on Paul Townsend’s Flickr account, accompanied by an excellent history of armed police in the UK:

Five police officers walking down a street, all holding large guns which are pointed towards the ground.

We see good practice all round: guns pointed down, fingers covering but not on the trigger. (And I always feel better when I see they’re a little apprehensive with the guns too!)

If the Cambridge Police Service want me to feel reassured, they could start by picking a nicer image. Once they can use Twitter sensibly, then maybe we can talk about using guns as well.