Reduced threat level in Northern Ireland raises questions over police carrying handguns

Unlike the rest of the UK, all police officers in Northern Ireland carry handguns.

A Policing Board report has suggested it could be time for the PSNI to consider how officers are armed in the long term.

Unlike most police in the UK and the Republic, PSNI officers carry handguns and can, if they wish, carry them while off duty.

This has been due to the threat posed by terror groups.

However, a reduction in the threat level raises questions over the criteria for arming all PSNI officers, a new Policing Board report has said.

Given the fact weapons are rarely discharged means police should consider the issue as part of its long-term plans, the report authors said.

The Police Federation, rejected the recommendation. It said more officers should be trained on less lethal weapons, such as Tasers, but on firearms said was "devoid of acknowledging" the human rights of police officers.

"Day and daily, both on and off duty, our officers are being targeted, and they must have the ability to defend themselves," said Liam Kelly chair of the organisation which represents officers.

"Yet again, it appears that officer rights under Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights are not being effectively advocated by the [Policing Board], and that is a source of great disappointment. “Overall, this report shows scant regard for officer health and safety. They are expected to intervene in vicious brawls and confront violent assailants, and the board seems to think they can do that job by reasoning with dangerous and often armed assailants. “Real world policing invariably is not conducted in a eutopia nor can interactions always be fully replicated in simulated training environments. Our officers do not fear accountability or oversight. What they do fear is the inability to protect themselves, their colleagues and victims of crime because they are not being provided with the requisite support and available equipment necessary to enable them to do their jobs.”

The latest report came as part of the Policing Board's annual human rights report and was published alongside a special report examining the use of force by the PSNI.

The report into use of force contains a chapter on firearms.

It states: "In Northern Ireland, the chief constable has given standing authority for all officers, subject to successful training, to be issued with a personal issue handgun which may be carried when officers are both on and off duty.

"In the rest of the UK, only highly trained authorised firearms officers (AFO) carry firearms."

The report said officers can lawfully discharge a firearm only when they believe it is absolutely necessary to do so in order to save life or prevent serious injury, but explained that the use of firearms has fluctuated over the past 10 years.

Firearms were drawn 364 times in 2012/13, compared to 440 times in 2021/22.

Firearms have only been discharged five times over the past 10 years.

The report recommended: "The reduction in the security threat level in Northern Ireland and the fact that officers very rarely have to fire their firearms raises a question about what the criteria should be for issuing firearms to all officers rather than, as in the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland, only to those specially trained in their use.

"The PSNI should consider this issue as part of its longer-term plans."

Last year, MI5 took the decision to reduce the threat level in Northern Ireland from severe to substantial for the first time in 12 years.

The report also recommended the PSNI should contract an independent research body to ascertain the effect of injuries to individuals hit by plastic bullets or stun grenades or bitten by police dogs.

Commenting on the publication of the two reports, Policing Board chair Deirdre Toner said: "The findings and recommendations made in these latest detailed reports reinforce the importance of oversight, ensuring the Police Service continues to meets its human rights responsibilities and delivers a rights-based approach in all aspects of its service.

"The police have access to an extensive range of powers to support delivery of their duties.

"It is therefore essential for confidence in the service that the public can be assured police powers are being used both legitimately and proportionately.

"The findings and recommendations made within these reports also helps ensure that knowledge and understanding of the impact human rights has on policing increases within the service and the wider community."

PSNI deputy chief constable Mark Hamilton said: "We welcome these reports.

"Human rights are central to everything we do as police officers and the oversight provided by the Policing Board is key to maintaining public confidence in policing.

"We will continue to work alongside the Policing Board's independent human rights adviser as we consider and respond to the content of these wide-ranging reports."

Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International's Northern Ireland programme director, welcomed the Policing Board recommendation on the arming of officers.

He said: "Having specially trained authorised firearms officers who provide an armed response where it is reasonable, proportionate and lawful to do so, would bring the PSNI more into line with policing in the rest of the UK and Ireland.

"United Nations basic principles on policing recommend that law enforcement officials should apply non violent means where at all possible before resorting to the use of force and firearms."

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