Armed and extremely dangerous? Or packing little more than a replica gun, a ball bearing gun or a child’s toy and a bad attitude?
It’s their call – that of the men with the disarming smiles pictured today led by bronze commander Sheena Tattum, the acting chief inspector heading Lancashire Police’s firearms units.
There are four armed response vehicles based in the county, staffed by operational officers, on duty around the clock.
“We have one inspector, six sergeants and 66 PCs on the operational side, and two sergeants and 10 PCs on the training side,” she adds. “We’re up to quota, but there are always others keen to come in.”
The unit includes several Fylde coast crack marksmen, selected as much for temperament, ability to stay calm under pressure, as shooting skills. They include PC Steve Whalley, of Thornton, who served in the armed forces before joining the police.
“You would think it would give you a head start on this sort of thing but it doesn’t,” says PC Whalley. “It’s a totally different mindset. There’s also a difference in the firearms carried.”
He joined the unit 18 months ago.
PC Rod MacBain, from Garstang, adds: “The majority of us are not gung-ho. We are trained in conflict resolution. There are times when the best weapon at our disposal is a sense of humour.
“Shooting is a last resort.”
Unit members deal with general policing issues but, if an incident is reported where someone is reportedly carrying a firearm, they respond to the call.
Most of the weapons turn out to be BB guns but as Chief Insp Tattum concedes: “It’s a tough call to make. Some look so realistic, even experienced officers can’t always tell the difference. If you’re down a back alley at 3am facing someone with a gun, it can be hard to tell if it’s a toy or the real thing. It’s a risk you can’t afford to take. BB guns remain our worst nightmare. They can also do damage.”
Chief Insp Tattum, who also leads the police dog unit, doesn’t carry a weapon herself. “I don’t shoot, I can’t shoot, I don’t want to shoot. I don’t need to be able to shoot.” Instead she helps handpick those involved operationally. “It’s a process of careful sifting,” she adds.
It’s still unusual to find a woman heading firearms. Even within the 66-strong squad there are only two women, although two more are being trained awaiting vacancies.
As bronze commander, she directly controls resources at an incident, handles risk assessment, post-incident debriefing, and is the critical link between the unit and senior officers.
Police responded to 199 incidents involving firearms, or alleged firearms, last year, 147 of them spontaneous – gunshot reportedly heard, calls to report someone sighted with a firearm or alleged firearm, armed raids. Fifty two of them were planned, based on information received, operational support, street sieges, or operations which call for fire power with criminals likely to be tooled up.
Only yesterday traders and residents of Queen Street, Blackpool, spoke of fears after a spate of violent crime – including an armed raid – on their street.
Chief Insp Tattum adds: “Blackpool has gun crime, but not significantly worse than other areas of similar size or issues. Much the same goes for Lancashire.
“If anything, in the less four years there has been a downward trend. It’s not as bad as the public perceive it.
“We’ve found people going out, licensed gun holders, to shoot vermin. In other cases, people have heard fireworks and reacted. Our communications staff ask a lot of questions to help us tell whether it’s a viable firearm or not.”
The bronze (operational), silver (tactical) and gold (overall control) command structure was set up by the Met and rolled out across the country after the death of an officer highlighted failings in the usual rank command system. It makes it clear just who is in operational charge in a given situation.
“We have to think on our feet,” admits Chief Insp Tattum. “We assess risks and remain 100 per cent transparent.”
Insp Andy Trotter, who has worked within firearms for five years, adds: “It’s professional, cohesive but friendly. You need a strong team ethos.”
Chief Insp Tattum adds: “It’s not for everyone, that’s why it’s voluntary. We can teach applicants to aim and shoot, but it’s more important they assess, look at the situation from all angles. It’s life or death they get it right.” Firearms training lasts eight weeks with further training in driving and first aid.
For PC MacBain, public perception changed after Hungerford in 1987 and Dunblane in 1996 became synonymous with two of the worst criminal atrocities involving firearms in British history. “That’s when public opinion changed,” he adds. “People had mixed feelings about bobbies carrying firearms before then.”
The summer of 2010 saw 12 people killed when Whitehaven cabbie Derrick Bird embarked on a random shooting spree across Cumbria before taking his own life. A month later, in Northumberland, cornered killer Raoul Moat also chose to shoot himself, fearing police would use stun guns to take him alive. He had wounded his ex-girlfriend, killed her partner and blinded an unarmed police patrol officer.
It’s 30 years since Blackpool superintendent Gerry Richardson died, shot twice at point blank, after telling gem robber Fred Sewell, ‘Don’t be silly, son”.
He remains the most senior police officer killed on duty in Britain. His memorial plaque overlooks reception at police HQ Hutton, where the firearms unit is based.
And Lancashire lost its very first officer, PC Jump, in the 1860s, shot dead by a group of men he and a colleague were searching.