Police in England, Scotland, and Wales have operated largely unarmed since the formation of the London Metropolitan Police in 1829. The ideology of British policing rests on the notion of ‘policing by consent’: that the police are ‘citizens in uniform’; that the primary duty of the police is to the public, not the state; and that the use of force is a last resort. The fact that officers operate largely unarmed is a key tenet and manifestation of this ideology. Yet, despite the long history of unarmed policing, recent terror attacks in the UK and Europe and a putative rise in serious violent crime have led to increased deployment of firearms officers and calls for the routine arming of more police. In the two years to March 2018, there was a 14% increase in the number of officers authorised to carry firearms (from 5639 to 6459) and a 28% increase in the number of police firearm operations (14,631 to 18,746) (Home Office 2018). Although still relatively low overall, numbers of armed police seem likely to continue to rise. In November 2018, for example, the London Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) mooted the idea of using armed police for routine patrols in neighbourhoods affected by the recent increase in serious violent crime (BBC 2018).
The debate about whether to arm more police is often framed in terms of public reassurance (Waldren 2007). For example, the MPS plans for more ‘routine’ armed patrols in November 2018 had the partial aim of enhancing public confidence (Guardian 2018). However, despite the oft-stated idea that such patrols will serve a reassurance function, there has been little examination of how people will respond to an increased armed presence. In the first in-depth study using data from a large-scale survey of Londoners,Footnote 1 Yesberg and Bradford (2018) found support for the routine arming of police varied significantly across different sociodemographic, psychological, and attitudinal characteristics. People’s affective response to the idea of armed police and their general trust in the police were the strongest predictors of support for arming more officers. However, the cross-sectional nature of the data made it impossible to estimate causal effects. We do not know, that is, what effect the routine arming of more officers might have on public perceptions of, and relations with, police.
This paper presents findings from an online study testing whether the presence of a firearm changes the way people living in Great Britain perceive police. The study used two experimental manipulations. First, we primed some people to think about terrorism to test whether terrorism salience leads to more positive reactions of armed police. Second, we varied exposure to armed police to assess whether seeing more officers with firearms affects people’s general willingness to trust police and to grant them legitimacy.
No longer ‘citizens in uniform’?
Social identity theory provides a framework for understanding how the presence of a firearm might affect people’s reactions to police. Social identity theory argues that individuals are more likely to favour members of their in-group over members of their out-group (Brewer 1999). Characteristics such as gender and ethnicity can signal in-group status, along with the use of symbols and behaviours (ibid.). Research has shown that public support for police depends, to a significant degree, upon the extent to which the police act as ‘prototypical representatives’ of the group’s shared moral values (i.e., the extent to which people view them as part of their in-group; Bradford 2014; Sunshine and Tyler 2003). The police are frequently cited as being prototypical representatives of the nation state and its communities (Loader and Mulcahy 2003; Reiner 2010). Indeed, the experience of fair process at the hands of police has been linked to stronger identification with superordinate social categories – such as ‘Britishness’ or ‘Australianness’ – and a stronger sense of belonging or inclusion (Bradford 2014; Bradford et al. 2014).
But what might diminish identification? Of course, procedural injustice at the hands of police can exclude, marginalise and/or alienate people from such categories (Blackwood et al. 2015), but other factors that make police ‘less like us’ may also be relevant. In Great Britain – unlike the USA and other countries where gun ownership is widespread – people do not typically own or have access to guns. British people may therefore expect the police, as ‘prototypical representatives’ of their social group, to present in the same way. And indeed, historically, being unarmed has been central to the notion that British police are ‘citizens in uniform’. Seeing officers carrying firearms may thus attenuate a sense of social similarity with police, signalling out-group status and a distancing between police and public. In other words, people living in Great Britain may not feel armed police are prototypical representatives of the group’s moral values because carrying a weapon is, here, far outside the norm.
Feeling shared group membership with police is important for a variety of reasons. Research shows that when people identify with police and the group they represent, they are more likely to view them positively – as trustworthy, legitimate authorities – and are more likely to comply and cooperate with the structures and rules the institution represents (Bradford 2014; Bradford et al. 2014; Jackson et al. 2013; Turner and Reynolds 2010; Tyler and Huo 2002). Trust can be defined as a willingness to be vulnerable founded in beliefs about the current and likely future behaviours of police officers (Bradford et al. 2017; Hamm et al. 2017). Legitimacy, on the other hand, refers to the extent to which people believe police behave in an appropriate manner and feel a normatively grounded obligation to obey police (Jackson et al. 2013). If the act of police carrying a weapon encourages a sense that the police are ‘not like us’, people may respond less positively to police, be less likely to trust police and less likely to grant police legitimacy: judgements which have important consequences for citizen behaviour, including their willingness to cooperate with police, to grant police discretion, and even their propensities to obey the law (Sunshine and Tyler 2003; Tyler and Fagan 2008; Tyler and Huo 2002; Van Damme et al. 2015).
The design for this study was based on Simpson’s (2017) Police Officer Perception Project (POPP) methodology. Simpson presented people with a series of images of police officers, manipulated the officer’s attire (uniform or civilian clothing) and patrol strategy (foot, bike, car) and asked them to record their affective response to the officers (i.e., whether they viewed them positively or negatively). We used a similar methodology by showing participants a series of images of police officers and manipulating whether or not the officers were carrying a firearm. Drawing on social identity theory, we propose the following hypotheses:
H1: The presence of a firearm will signal out-group status, and, as a result, people will have a more negative affective response to police officers when they are presented with a firearm.
H2: People who are exposed to more images of armed police – i.e., more officers who are not prototypical group representatives – will express less trust in police and will grant police less legitimacy.
Along with manipulating exposure to armed police, the study also manipulated terrorism salience. In recent years, the UK has experienced a number of high-profile terrorist attacks, and armed police have proved a vital part of the response. For example, following the London Bridge attack on June 3, 2017, armed police arrived at the scene and shot dead the suspects within minutes. It is almost certain that more fatalities would have occurred if it were not for this immediate armed response. In this study, we test whether priming people to think about terrorism (‘terrorism salience’) affects the way people perceive armed police. It might be that people for whom a terrorist attack is more salient have more positive perceptions of armed police because they feel armed officers can provide a vital part of the response to an attack. Thus, we propose the following hypothesis:
H3: People who are primed to think about terrorism will have a more positive affective response to armed police than people who are not primed.