If the smiling armed police officers photographed in a market in Newcastle had been at Heathrow airport, it is likely that no one would have given them more than a second glance. So what was all the fuss about, and why does the police service yet again feel stuck in a damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ hole?
It is clear that the terrorist threat confronting Europe is changing. While in Brussels it was the airport that was attacked, in Paris and Nice it was predominantly vulnerable locations cafÌ©s, a music venue, a sea front road that were targeted by committed attackers armed with explosives, firearms and even a lorry. MP Jo Cox was stabbed and shot in Birstall, a village six miles from Leeds. These are not, for the most part, high profile targets in prestigious locations. The police service along with the security service and military counterparts has to ready itself to respond to these new threats, including in places that might not traditionally be thought of as terrorist targets. More armed officers are being recruited from the ranks and the public is quietly being educated to run, hide, tell‘ if an armed attack happens.
The disquiet about armed police officers in a Newcastle market is, in my view, quite understandable (although the section of the police service on Twitter that focused on the smiling’ bit of the story completely missed this point, wilfully or otherwise). A very similar story emerged in Police Scotland two years ago, when armed police officers were photographed doing some shopping and the fallout lasted for months and arguably contributed to the demise of Sir Stephen House. Both hinge on that old policing staple: matter out of place.
When you go to the airport, or if for example you work in some parts of central London, you expect or at least are not surprised to see armed police officers. They confirm something you already knew that these are places at relatively high risk of terrorist attack. Christmas shopping in a Newcastle market is something else altogether. As with most things in policing, the context is hugely important. So the first key point is that the police service has to adapt its approach and messaging to these different settings, even if the ultimate policing goals are the same.
In the Newcastle case, the initial reports quoted Northumbria police as saying that armed officers had been deployed “purely for reassurance and to make people feel safe”, which seemed to miss the fact that some (perhaps many) people may feel less safe when armed police officers are present (similarly, when I see a police helicopter near my house I assume something bad is happening). In an apparently later statement, the police message was a little different, and perhaps more honest with the public: “These officers are there to protect people from what is a changing threat. The threat level remains severe – there’s no specific intelligence that Newcastle or anywhere in our force area is going to be targeted, but we need to be alive to that threat and need to be strong.” The need to be strong’ bit seems ambiguous to me perhaps telling the public to man up’ a bit? but otherwise the message is quite clear.
Research more than a decade ago by Professors Martin Innes and Nigel Fielding identified signal crimes’ as those that have a disproportionate impact on people’s fear of crime, comprising warning signals about levels of risk. This was later developed to identify how the police can use control signals’ to counter that fear. Yet armed policing seems to be a candidate for being simultaneously both a signal of risk (Jason Roach and colleagues refer to signal policing’) and also a signal of control hence damned if you do, damned if you don’t. The second key point, then, concerns the way that in the same context the same circumstances may be interpreted very differently.
The wider research on reassurance policing’ from the last decade further tells us that, at least in the context of neighbourhood policing, you need a visible police presence along with good problem solving and community engagement in order to reassure communities.
In the case of armed policing in new contexts, my instinct is that the police service needs to pay much greater attention to those who feel less safe in their presence and find ways to allay those concerns if they can. To the extent that it is possible and this won’t always be the case that probably means giving more warning and more information before and as they start patrolling, seeing engagement as a strategic as much as tactical process (there are parallels here with the spit hoods debate). Certainly, having approachable and friendly armed officers must be an important part of the mix, but it is at best necessary rather than sufficient.
A related point is the way at least parts of the police service seem to hold firmly to the view that the presence of police officers is intrinsically reassuring to the public. This is most clearly manifested in the reassurance patrols’ so often deployed in local areas after serious crimes have taken place, which often seem to me to risk (a) worrying locals that events are ongoing (unless of course they are), and (b) arising from a concern to be seen to be doing something’ rather than because they are known to be beneficial. If there is evidence that they do indeed reassure then I confess to being unaware of it.
The case of the smiling armed officers in Newcastle reminds us that reassurance is a complex concept where context matters and even then different sections of the public may have differing reactions and needs when presented with the same events. For some, armed policing may be a source of comfort in the face of horrific global events that seem closer to our shores than has been the case for some years. For others, armed policing may be completely at odds with their concept of a reassuring police presence, communicating threats and concern to the public. The changing nature of society and crime and especially terrorism points to the need to think about the different needs and perceptions of different publics at the same time. Getting that right cannot be easy, but the police service deserves our support in its efforts to do so.