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Opinion: having the army on standby as police firearm officers only risks exacerbating systemic issues

The British military has a habit of being offered up by the Conservative Party as the best solution to a national crisis.

In recent months, uniformed soldiers have been trained to cover for immigration staff after the Public and Commercial Services Union voted to take industrial action. Soldiers were tasked to rescue motorists stranded in snow earlier this year. And in 2021 they were called in to help calm the fuel crisis. It was also mooted that they could be rushed in to assist the NHS in the midst of more strikes.

In total, the Labour Party has reported that the British military was asked to help out on 85 occasions in civil contingency duties just last year.

Today is no different. In response to hundreds of Metropolitan Police officers stepping back from firearms duties – their protest against the charging of a colleague with murder – London’s Metropolitan Police has asked the British Army’s Special Air Services (SAS) to be on standby to provide armed support.

The firearms officers have handed in their weapons over concern that one of their own has been charged with the murder of 24-year-old Chris Kaba, an unarmed black man who was shot in the head and killed by a police bullet last September.

To some Conservative politicians, putting the SAS on standby for action against terrorist suspects, especially given the high number of police counter-terrorism officers that have refused to be available for armed duties, makes sense. For, while the Met itself has said that “armed forces personnel won’t be used in a routine policing capacity”, Rachel Maclean, Housing and Planning Minister, has said the Government would do “whatever it takes” to keep the public safe. 

But is the SAS really the best unit to keep the public safe in policing situations – or is it a blunt force with a concerning past?

After all, this ‘elite regiment’ – for all the praise it gets in some areas of the British press – is not infallible. It is currently at the centre of an unprecedented investigation into war crimes in Afghanistan.

Lord Justice Haddon-Cave is heading up a review of one SAS unit that was operational in Helmand Province between 2010 and 2011, which allegedly killed as many as 54 people in extra-judicial killings during a six-month tour. The judge has heard that the elite soldiers allegedly killed unarmed Afghans as part of a policy to eliminate all fighting-age males in raided homes, regardless of the perceived threat they posed. 

Despite this unparalleled investigation into one of the UK’s most secretive fighting forces – a unit that is not subject to Freedom of Information requests nor is overseen by any parliamentary committee – so strong is the public support of the SAS that any police deployment is likely to be met with little criticism.

And all of this is against the wider backdrop of relatively recent British army harm to civilians. The British military paid out compensation for the deaths of between 64 and 135 children in Afghanistan. Last year, it was revealed that a total of 298 non-combatant fatalities had been found where the British Army paid compensation and, implicitly, accepted liability in fighting in Helmand province.

Another concern that arises within the police firearm scandal is that it is highly likely that most, if not all, of the Met Police officers handing in their firearm ‘blue badges’ are white. After all, 2020 data shows that only 0.2% of UK armed police officers identify as black. And even though this figure does not include the Met (because that force did “not record specific officer defined ethnicity” for armed officers), the national trend is certain to extend to the capital city.

Data from 2020 also reveals that one in four people shot by police were black despite them making up only 3.9% of the population. Between 2020 and 2022 in England and Wales, in the 7,670 times where armed police pointed their guns at a subject but didn’t fire, one in four incidents, 1,933, involved a black person. In the Metropolitan Police, this figure rose to 48% in 2021.

So, it is likely that it is mainly white officers who are handing in their firearm badges over the consequences of one of their own being accused of killing a black man. It is also likely that the vast majority of any SAS troops tasked with replacing resigning Met officers will also be white. While the Government does not release any details of serving SAS troops, the relative absence of black SAS soldiers in The Regiment, as it is called, is well known.

The Government faces a crisis caused by the death of a black man, by one its own white firearm police officers, in a force that has been routinely found guilty of systemic racism. Its response is to replace the resigning white police officers with white Special Force operatives, drawn from a military that has also been accused of systemic racism, and whose own SAS regiment is currently under investigation for the systematic killing of non-white civilians.

It is, perhaps, small wonder that less than half of Londoners now trust their city’s police force. And even less the Government.