Police murders: What next?
by John Humphrys in Commentary and Editor's picks
Thu September 20, 10:03 a.m. BST
John Humphrys asks: should more of our police officers be armed routinely?
Every so often – mercifully rarely – a crime is committed that is so outrageous it makes us all stop in our tracks and wonder what is happening to our society. Such a crime was the murder of two young police women in Greater Manchester. It is hard to argue with Sir Peter Fahy, the chief constable, when he said that this was a “despicable act of pure evil”. More complicated is whether it should force us to think again about the relationship between police and public and whether to reconsider the arming of Britain’s police forces. And even whether to bring back capital punishment.
The facts of the case are chilling. A 999 call was received reporting that a house was being broken into in Hattersley. The two young women – WPC Fiona Bone and WPC Nicola Hughes – were sent to investigate. When they arrived at the house a man emerged, shot WPC Bone in the head at point blank range and then fired a volley of shots at WPC Hughes. He also threw a hand grenade, which exploded. He was then seen getting into a car and driving off. Thirty-five minutes later - at 11.30 in the morning – a 29 year-old man, Dale Cregan, walked into the nearby Hyde police station and handed himself in at the front desk.
It emerged later that Cregan had been arrested more than three months ago. He was questioned about the murder of Mark Short in a Manchester pub on May 25th. He was released on bail pending further enquiries and allegedly went on the run. By the time he gave himself up he was suspected not only of the murder of the policewomen and Mark Short but also of killing Mr Short’s son. Police had offered a reward of £50,000 for information leading to his. Both men had served time in prison and had been involved in shooting incidents. At one stage it is believed that almost the entire armed response units of four different police forces were involved in trying to track down their killer. Sir Peter Fahy said he believed there had been a small conspiracy involving hardened criminals responsible for concealing Cregan.
Inevitably questions have been raised as to whether the police officers sent to the house in Hattersley should have been unarmed. The police point out that the address was “not known to us” and there was, therefore, no reason to send an armed team. It was, as far as they are concerned, a routine call reporting a burglary. There was no way they could have known it was a deliberate ambush.
Even so, the question is now once again being asked: should more of our police officers be armed routinely? The bald facts suggest the chances of a police officer being killed in the line of duty are reassuringly small. Even less frequent are multiple killings. Tuesday’s appalling incident was the worst in England since 1966 when three officers were killed in west London. Harry Roberts, one of their murderers, is still in jail. It is also true that the police have been remarkably successful in cutting gun crime across the country. A former senior officer at the National Ballistics Intelligence Service, Matt Lewis, says gun crime has been cut by 50 per cent since 2003. But he also warns: “You can never relax the focus on eliminating guns. It only takes one person with one gun to cause a tragedy like this.”
And that is precisely why some people believe the police should be routinely armed. Surveys carried out amongst police officers suggest there is little appetite for that. Some police chiefs believe it would “raise the stakes” and lead to more criminals going in search of arms. Sir Peter himself said on Tuesday: “We are passionate that the British style is routinely unarmed policing and sadly we know from the experience in America and other countries that having armed officers certainly does not mean that officers do not end up getting shot dead.”
He has a point. Apart from anything else, a significant number of police officers in the United States die as a result of being accidentally shot by a colleague.
But the film director Michael Winner, founder of the Police Memorial Trust, thinks the policy should be changed: “I cannot understand it when in all other countries police are armed to fight what is clearly a different situation today. It is ridiculous.” And Tony Payne, the former chairman of the Essex Police Federation, asked: “How many have to die before arming is considered?”
Then there is the question of capital punishment being restored for the murder of a police officer. The former chairman of the Conservative Party, Lord Tebbitt, said it is time to think again of the “deterrent effect of the shadow of the gallows. A Tory MP on the justice select committee, Nick de Bois, agreed. Such killers, he said, did not fear the law and Parliament should examine brining back capital punishment. The Police Federation takes the same view.
What is your view?
- Do you think it is time to re-open the debate on capital punishment and, if so, do you believe it should be reintroduced for the murder of police officers exclusively?
- Do you believe there is a case for routinely arming most of our police officers or do you have concerns that the police have already moved too far away from their old “PC Dixon” image?
- How do you respond to the fact that police did not receive tip-offs as to the whereabouts of Dale Cregan in spite of such a large reward being offered?
- Do you agree with those who say there has been a breakdown in relations between the police and the public – at least in those parts of our towns and cities where armed criminals seem to hold sway?
- Has your attitude to our police changed in any way over the past few years and if so … why?