9 Jan 2014

Trigger happy Britain? How police shootings compare

After the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan by police is deemed lawful by a jury, Channel 4 News looks at the use of guns by UK police – and whether it’s more than in other police forces around the world.

After the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan by police is deemed lawful by a jury, Channel 4 News looks the use of guns by British police - and whether it's more than police forces around the world.

In Britain, we’re keen to hold on to our nostalgic image of the bobby on the beat – the friendly neighbourhood copper who’s known to the community, feared by criminals and on hand to help when needed.

But it’s a far cry from the demands of modern policing, and from scenes at the high court on Wednesday, after an inquest ruled the shooting dead of 29-year-old Mark Duggan was lawful.

Met Police Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley was drowned out by angry crowds outside the high court, and the Duggan family say they will be appealing the jury’s decision.

The Duggan case rested on whether the jury believed the police officer’s account of events: that he only opened fire because he thought that the 29-year-old had a gun in his hand and was prepared to use it.

The killing of Mark Duggan is cited as one of the sparks for the 2011 riots, in which five people died and shops were burned to the ground, and anger with police over the shooting was palpable.

Other notable deaths at the hands of police include that of Jean Charles de Menezes, who was shot in 2005 after being mistaken for a terrorist, and Ian Tomlinson, the newspaper vendor who was struck by a police officer during a protest in 2009, and later collapsed and died.

But how common is it for British to police to open fire?

Video below: Met Police Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley is shouted down by crowds outside court after an inquest jury ruled Mark Duggan

Trigger happy?

In short – very rare. Police officers in England and Wales opened fire just five times for the year 2011/12. Out of these incidents, two people were killed, including Duggan.

In the four years to 2012, armed officers officers opened fire 18 times – nine fatally. No-one was shot dead by police in 2012/13.

The two fatalities in 2011/12 emerged from 12,550 operations during the same period, in which firearms officers were on the scene and had been given authorisation to open fire, even though they did not, according to the latest Home Office stats.

The authorisation factor is important, because this is where British police differ to most of the rest of the world. Aside from Ireland, all major police forces in Europe routinely carry firearms, along with the US, Canada and Australia. New Zealand is another exception.

That does not mean that firearms officers are not called out onto the streets frequently – just that authorised firearms officers (AFOs) are specially trained and that the decision made to deploy them is made by an inspector or someone even more senior. Since 2004, the use of tasers has been preferred in official policy – again, only by trained officers.

When an officer does open fire, there’s an immediate investigation, with the IPCC involved. Some families of victims of police shootings, including the Duggan family, have claimed that the police officers involved are in fact treated with a lighter touch by investigators, including the IPCC – and the law. Something that the accused passionately dispute.

“The officers are subject to immense scrutiny and pressure is placed on them and their colleagues on how they explain it,” said Mark Williams, chairman of the PFOA. “The bottom line is, everything they did has to be justified by law.”

And to highlight how rare it is for a British police officer to actually open fire, Mr Williams told Channel 4 News: “I carried a firearm for five years in London, and I never had to fire it. Actually firing a weapon is very rare. The vast majority of them have never fired a weapon.

“No firearms officer wants to shoot someone. It’s a last resort.”

He argues that British police officers have the best firearms training in Europe, precisely because the force is unarmed as a matter of course.

The wider picture

It is difficult to separate the number of police shootings from the use of firearms in the society that they’re operating in: in a country where gun crime is rife and gun ownership laws more relaxed, police are more likely to be called to use their own firearms.

In the US for example, 410 people were killed by police officers in 2012: that’s about 0.00013 per cent of the US population, compared to 0.0000035 per cent in the UK.

But the US has over four times as many homicides as the UK, according to the latest UN statistics, and there is a far stronger culture of gun ownership across the Atlantic.

Another country where police have been criticised for fatal shootings is South Africa, which is notorious for high rates of murder, assault and murder. Just last year, over 30 people died when police opened fire on miners who were on strike – an incident now known as the Marikana massacre.

A much-cited report from the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria found that police had shot dead 556 people in 2008/2009, the highest number in 12 years, and double the numbers four years ago.

That is 0.001 per cent of the population – far higher than the UK and the US.

To put this in context, the homicide rate in South Africa is also startling: 30.9 per 100,000 of population, compared to one, for the same number of people in England, and 4.7 in the US.

For a perhaps fairer comparison with the UK, Sweden has a more similar rate of homicide to the UK – 0.9 per 100,000 of the population. And its rate of police shooting is around the same: in the 18 years to July 2013, 18 people were shot dead by Swedish police.

The verdict

Police use of firearms – fatal or otherwise – is just one measure of police behaviour out of many. The increasing use of tasers, for example, comes with its own issues and the IPCC is investigating 12 taser-related incidents, including three fatalities.

Death in police custody is another factor measured by the IPCC – there were 15 fatalities in the year 2012/13. And Channel 4 News has reported on the use of restraining belts on detainees’ faces, by three police forces.

It is also worth noting that Home Office figures are for England and Wales only. In Northern Ireland, 30 civilian deaths at the hands of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) were recorded during the period known as “the Troubles” alone – a significant number for an area with a population of just 1.8 million.

But in terms of using firearms – and using them fatally – the figures suggest that British police are reluctant to open fire.