PC Keith Palmer had a split second decision to make on the afternoon of 22 March 2017. A big man with a shaven head and a ‘Hand of Allah’ beard was running towards him, waving at least one knife. Did he run and hide; or did he confront him? Heroically, PC Palmer tried to stop Khalid Masood. In the struggle that followed, Keith Palmer received multiple stab injuries and subsequently died; Khalid Massood was shot three times by a ministerial close protection officer, who happened to be standing nearby, and also died.
Keith Palmer was one of the police officers on duty at the perimeter of the Palace of Westminster – the British Parliament – in effect the first obstacle to anyone attempting to gain entry to the parliamentary estate. He was not armed, neither was any police officer normally stationed there who was close enough to intervene. Had it not happened to be a Wednesday, when ministers converge on the House of Commons for Prime Minister’s Questions, there would have been no armed response within reach. As it was, an armed officer happened to be standing by the Secretary of State for Defence’s car and moved in. Keith Palmer still died.
Any infantryman or sapper – in fact any soldier – will tell you that an obstacle that is not covered by both observation and fire is not an obstacle. Keith Palmer was not an obstacle to anyone attempting to make a forced entry into the Palace of Westminster, although in his hi-viz jacket he might have looked like one to his complacent commanders.
It is no longer good enough to look like an obstacle. Islamist terrorists are, by and large, expecting to die during their attacks. They are hoping to inflict as much damage as possible during the course of their attack. They are unlikely to be deterred by an unarmed copper in a hi-viz vest. They will try to kill him or her and carry on with their business until someone actually does physically stop them. Had an armed officer not been – coincidentally – present, we can only imagine what further carnage might have been inflicted.
Our police need to be able to stop attacks and ultimately the only way they can do that is by killing (or, I suppose, incapacitating) the terrorists. Realistically, the only way they can do that is by shooting them. They cannot shoot them if they are not armed.
And it isn’t just the once-in-a-blue-moon terrorist scenarios we need to be worrying about. This is no longer the 1930s. British society has changed. Many criminals operating in the UK today come from places where armed criminal violence is commonplace. And to add to this, the collapse of the Warsaw Pact has created a glut of illegal guns in Europe.
What this means is that police officers in the inner cities are regularly going in to potentially armed situations with no means to resolve them. Of course we have armed response vehicles circulating around but they are rarely likely to be the first responders. Instead it will usually be unarmed coppers, like Keith Palmer, who have to put themselves in harm’s way. That means that some of them, like Keith Palmer, will be killed or seriously injured.
92% of Metropolitan Police officers are not routinely armed. Many, of course, do not need to be because they are not in roles where they are likely to confront armed criminals but the fact is that police officers who may find themselves in a situation in which they are confronting terrorists or armed criminals should be able to defend both themselves and the public. To do that, they must be able to deploy more than a truncheon, a pepper spray and harsh language.
Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the Tunisian Islamist terrorist who killed 86 people and injured more than 400 by driving a truck along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice on 14 July 2016 was eventually stopped by ordinary French Police shooting at him with their sidearms. Khalid Masood ran down three unarmed police officers as he crossed Westminster Bridge. We don’t know if they were trying to stop him but if they were, they would have had a better chance if they had been able to shoot at him.
This is no longer a hypothetical situation. The threat of Islamist terrorism in the UK, and particularly in our major cities, has been assessed as ‘severe’ for some time and is likely to remain so. It is not unreasonable to suppose that Masood’s actions will inspire other terrorist self-starters to have a go. The list of potential targets is more or less infinite. Putting more armed officers around the Palace of Westminster won’t help much if an attack takes place in Cardiff, Glasgow or Coventry. We cannot afford this level of complacency; police patrols need to be routinely armed.