What are British police officers wearing

Despite the attacks, officials remain unarmed

It took Khalid Masoud just 82 seconds to wipe out four lives. Last Wednesday, the 52-year-old Briton drove a rental car down dozens of people on the sidewalk of Westminster Bridge in central London until he came to a stop in front of the Westminster Palace, the seat of the British Parliament.

There he stabbed a policeman at the entrance and ran a few meters until he was finally fatally shot by another policeman.

The attack did not come as a surprise, and less than a week after the attack, London is back to routine.

Despite this threat, the city retained a British peculiarity that amazes many visitors from other countries to this day: with the exception of Northern Ireland, the majority of British police officers do not carry firearms.

Although the number of armed police has increased significantly since the 9/11 attacks, of the more than 120,000 police officers on duty in England and Wales, only 5,600 are authorized to carry weapons - the majority of them in London (status no March 2016). But even there, around 90 percent of the "bobbies" only wear their uniforms, apart from pepper spray, handcuffs and batons.

But even when armed police officers - so-called authorized firearms officers - are called to a scene, they rarely use their firearms: for example, when a teenager stabbed five people on the street in London in the summer of 2016 and fatally wounded one person in the process, the perpetrator was arrested without firing a single shot. The procedure is not an isolated incident: from March 2015 to March 2016, police officers fired only seven shots during operations in England and Wales. An increase of exactly one firearms levy compared to 2014, in which only six shots were fired by police officers in action.

For the entire past year, only four people died from gunfire fired by police officers.

The police's reluctance to use firearms is based on a centuries-old policy. When the Metropolitan Police was founded in 1829, the population feared that the new security agency - just like the military that was feared at the time - could become repressive. For this reason, the principle of "policing by consent" was introduced. This idea that the police are primarily responsible to the population and not to the state is still valid in Great Britain today.

The uniform color blue, with which the newly founded police clearly differed from the infantry in the red uniforms at the time, is based on this principle. According to proponents of this principle, firearms for police officers would send the wrong signal to the population and ultimately cause more problems than they solve.

The fact that such a policy can continue to be upheld is probably also due to the fact that not only the police but also the population of Great Britain are largely unarmed. According to an estimate by the Small Arms Survey, there are only around six firearms for every 100 residents of England and Wales. For comparison: According to this estimate, there are 30 firearms for every 100 inhabitants in Austria (the estimate should not be confused with statistics on registered firearms).

For a long time the principle of the unarmed police also had popular support. In a 2004 survey, 47 percent of British respondents were in favor of general arming of the police, 48 percent were against. But support is starting to crumble: In a 2015 survey, 58 percent of those questioned were in favor of police officers with firearms.

And after the attacks in Westminister, London's dreaded tabloid media began to drum for a general arming of the police. The only problem: London's police officers speak out against their general arming. In a survey by the union of 31,000 police officers in the British capital, although the majority of those questioned were in favor of more armed units in the police force, only 26 percent wanted the police to be armed in general. (Stefan Binder, March 28, 2017)