In part five of the Yorkshire Evening Post’s series on gun and knife crime, we focus on the work of authorised firearms officers.
Armed police officers could be seen on the streets of Leeds, and in towns and cities around the region, on the morning after last month’s terrorist attack in London.
It was a move by West Yorkshire Police aimed at promoting the message that the public should be aware of, though not unduly worried by, the potential threat of extremist violence on their doorstep.
But the show of strength was part of a wider effort to increase the number of highly-trained firearms officers that has been going on since the horrifying assault on the office of the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in 2015.
As of three years ago, the force would have six armed response vehicles, also known as ARVs, each carrying two authorised firearms officers, or AFOs, patrolling the roads of West Yorkshire.
This was reduced to five as a result of budget cuts, but the Charlie Hebdo attack, which left ten journalists and two policemen dead, caused senior officers to re-think their priorities.
A great deal of emphasis goes on officers being able to make the right decision, often in very pressurised situations.Assistant Chief Constable Mark Milsom
According to Mark Milsom, the force’s Assistant Chief Constable with overall responsibility for firearms officers, an analysis was done on how West Yorkshire could be protected from an attack like that on January 7, where masked gunmen ran amok before fleeing.
“(It} is getting sufficient numbers of police officers to a scene as quickly as you possibly can, to try and confront people who have firearms, and deal with them, rather than what happened, where the people escaped from the scene and you are trying to find out where they are and they are presenting a threat,” he said.
“As a result of that debrief we started increasing the number of authorised firearms officers. From that point on, over the course of that year and as we speak now we have been increasing the number of authorised firearms officers in the force.
“Typically we now have a minimum of eight ARVs on the road, double crewed, that is our minimum manpower requirement, but quite commonly it will be more like ten.”
In recent years, the number of officers trained by Yorkshire’s biggest police force to handle and use firearms has risen from below 140 to 165, still a small proportion in an organisation that employs just under 4,700 officers.
The approach of a small number of such officers in an otherwise unarmed constabulary, adopted by all British forces, contrasts with that taken over the Channel in France, says Mr Milsom.
“They have the Gendarmes, they carry firearms, almost all of them carry them, they wouldn’t go out without one, apart from when they do the Grand Depart [in Yorkshire in 2014] and then we don’t let them carry them,” he says.
“The difference is that ours are trained and specialised, not just around being able to shoot the firearms but in all the tactical interventions we can use which are aimed predominantly at getting containment on people, negotiating with people, and getting safe resolutions to a variety of potential threats.”
Four years ago a decision was made to take out the back seats of their vehicles and put in a mobile armoury, housed in a secure strong-box, with all the weaponry they might need.
“We never want to be in a position where our firearms officers were at the scene of an incident and said ‘if we just had that piece of equipment we are trained in, but it is back at the armoury, we could have resolved that safely’,” Mr Milsom said.
“It is to allow them to have all the equipment there, they effectively carry a large amount of ammunition and all the firearms they are trained in, and just as importantly all the other options.”
As well as handguns, used mostly for personal protection because they are only really effective at close range, they routinely carry Tasers, and rubber or plastic bullets, a less lethal way of neutralising suspects. They are also supplied with, and trained to use, a full First Aid kit, including defibrillator, on major trauma victims, either when the officers arrive before paramedics or cause the injury by their own hand.
After a lengthy training process to become an AFO, officers get 20 days of training a year to keep their standards high.
Another five weeks of training is needed to take the step up to specialist firearms officer, used in more high-risk situations and for more complicated operations, and a further five weeks to become an elite counter-terrorist specialist firearms officer, with the expertise to deal with those who may have no regard for their own safety. As part of a national network, there is a contingent of such counter-terror officers at Carr Gate, the training base opened in 2014 off Junction 41 of the M1, near Wakefield.
According to Mr Milsom, less of the training that officers undergo is devoted to handling and firing a gun than there is to how they assess the threat and respond under the most intense pressure.
“A great deal of emphasis goes on officers being able to make the right decision, often in very pressurised situations where they might be threatened themselves or others might be threatened,” he said.
“Normally if we have a situation like a robbery, it is quite a fast-moving and spontaneous incident, the duty officer will specifically authorise the deployment of the firearms officers. There will be a quick assessment of the threat, are firearms officers needed, and if they are what is the approach we are going to take, are we going to stop the vehicle or observe it?”