Imagine you are shopping in Tesco. A police officer walks in to check up on the store. They say hello to staff, patrol through the store, talk to shoppers and leave. You feel reassured that they are about. Good local policing requires officers to know what’s happening and to keep in touch with local stores.
Now imagine that the officer is armed. He, or she, is carrying a pistol. They say hello to staff, patrol through the store and leave. Do you feel reassured, or do you wonder why they are there? Do you feel the same about talking to an armed officer as an unarmed officer?
My job as is to represent the public and ensure their views are at the heart of their policing. That’s why I’m conducting a survey to understand how people in Carmarthenshire, Powys, Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire would like to see armed officers deployed.
Striking the balance between force and consent is always tricky. We need officers who can tackle people who would do us harm – dangerous criminals, terrorists, the violent or deranged. We also need officers who can fix problems before they get that bad – who work through trust, consent and strong relationships with local people to prevent crime.
Luckily the vast, vast majority of police work involves the latter. Dyfed Powys had around 40,000 incidents of crime and antisocial behaviour each year. In 2014 we had only 126 incidents where firearms officers were deployed.
Britain has a long, proud tradition of unarmed policing. That is because we see the police as members of our communities, protecting those communities. They belong to us not to the state. They rely on our support to exercise their powers, which is why local officers are the bedrock of all policing.
Sometimes, though, they need to use force. We have specialist armed officers to tackle those rare – but dangerous – situations where officers need firearms to protect the public.
Pretty much everyone accepts we need some armed officers. The question is, should those officers carry arms on normal duties? Do armed officers change the relationship between the public and the police?
My example above highlights concerns raised in Scotland last year. Armed police were deployed on routine patrols. Faced with criticism in the press, the police decided to withdraw those officers from routine duties. Now they only respond to incidents where firearms are required.
We have 74 firearms officers in Dyfed Powys. At the moment they conduct normal patrolling duties when not responding to incidents. They carry their pistols in holsters when doing this.
You can help me understand how the public see this tricky issue. This survey will inform my discussions with the Chief Constable about how we strike that balance between force and consent.
I want our communities to be the safest in the country. To do that we need to be able to tackle any threat. But we also need to be realistic about those threats and make sure we do not damage the most precious asset of all: the relationship between police and the public.
I look forward to hearing your views. You can find the survey here.