In the wake of recent terror attacks we saw a marked, deliberate and – to most of us – welcome rise in the number of firearms officers deployed around the capital and on the transport network.
The attacks, as such incidents always do, resulted in huge outpourings of support for the police, astonishment at the bravery and selflessness of the first responders and, later, a debate about the number of firearms officers in the capital and further afield.
Like stop & search, the debate about the level of armed policing is an issue that’s existed for as long as I’ve been reporting on politics and policing.
There are a multitude of views on the issue – some oppose all but the most essential deployment of firearms while others are happy for numbers to rise and many officers see an increase as essential if they’re to succeed in keeping the public and, at times, themselves safe.
Over the years my views have shifted in favour of routinely arming frontline cops with Taser – a position made easier thanks to the Met’s openness and routine publishing of usage data – and an increase in the number of firearms officers.
I’d also have no objection if the military became a permanent part of Parliament and other key targets’ protection. But having suggested this on Twitter a few weeks back, I’m certain it’s a minority view!
But wherever we individually stand on the issue, it’s important that the increasingly essential public debate on the future of British policing and the appropriate level of armed officers is based on hard evidence.
In London, it’s also vital that the discussion and the final decision takes into account not just the city’s status as the capital but also the fact that we have three separate but co-working police forces – the Met, the City of London and the British Transport Police.
The Met Police Federation has been understandably and justifiably keen to raise awareness of the fact that their force has seen a steep decline in the number of firearms officers in recent years.
In March 2009 the force had 2,740 authorised firearms officers, by March 2016 that number had fallen to 2,139. That’s a significant drop and current efforts to recruit 600 more officers only takes us back where we were a few years ago.
What of London’s other two police forces? The City of London’s firearms capability is roughly flat – as of March 2009 it had 50 officers and as of March 2016 it had 48.
I can tell you this because the Home Office routinely publishes the number of firearms officers for every English and Welsh force on its website.
You don’t have to be a journalist to access this information. You don’t have to register to download it. All you need to do is pop along to Gov.uk and you can download it for free, no questions asked.
But the spreadsheet the UK Government makes available doesn’t include the British Transport Police and neither the force’s website nor that of its scrutiny dodging police authority seems to state their number of armed London cops.
So I asked the force using the journalist’s favourite tool – the Freedom of Information Act which means if the figures exist and are already published they’d have to at least tell me they were already in the public domain and, if they were feeling super helpful, send me a link.
Given their recent refusal to provide officer overall numbers, I pointed out in my request that “comparable figures for the Met are in the public domain,” in the hope this would help them understand the data wasn’t especially sensitive.
Some of you have by now worked out where this is going. If you’re reading with a colleague or pal who hasn’t, don’t spoil the surprise…
Today the BTP denied the request accepting “there would be a small benefit to the public by the release of the information concerned” but insisting “there is a very strong factor favouring non-disclosure, this being the negative impact on the effectiveness of the police force in being able to respond to incidents successfully, to detect crime and to combat the ongoing threat from terrorism.”
But what about the fact the Met’s figures are in the public domain? What about the fact that the Government department most responsible for keeping us safe from terrorists puts them there?
The lengthy refusal notice covers this. It says:
“Comparison has been made in the request to figures on firearms officers disclosed by the Metropolitan Police. It should be noted that, when the Metropolitan Police publish figures on the number of Firearms Officers they have in London, they are doing so for their whole force area.
“If British Transport Police were to publish figures relating to AFOs based in the same area, that would have the effect of breaking down the numbers to divisional level and enable members of the criminal fraternity or individuals or groups intending to carry out acts of terrorism to map resources available.
“If coupled with further requests relating to other areas, the effect of this would be multiplied. British Transport Police’s area of jurisdiction covers geographically the whole of England, Scotland and Wales and is policed by approximately 3000 police officers.
“The Metropolitan Police are responsible for policing the Greater London area and have over 32000 police officers.
“It can therefore be seen that there is far greater harm that could potentially be caused by releasing information that could allow for the mapping of the resources or capabilities of British Transport Police compared to those of the Metropolitan Police who have far more officers concentrated over a far smaller area.
“Again, these risks are magnified when dealing with specialist resources such as Authorised Firearms Officers”
I can see the point they’re trying to make here but it’s undermined by the fact that the Home Office routinely publishes the City of London force’s numbers despite it covering a smaller, more defined area than the BTP’s London and South East division – so the likely whereabouts of officers is easier to map once you think about the key locations in the Square Mile – and that the numbers for every other force are available on Wikipedia.
I may yet kick this back for an internal review and, when it’s inevitably rejected, upwards to the Information Commissioner.
In the meantime the BTP’s increasingly apparent dislike for public scrutiny is making it harder for the public to understand what changes have already been made to the armed/unarmed mix across the capital – how many BTP cops are armed? 10%? 50? 100? – and weakening the debate about what further changes are necessary to help keep us safe.