‘Do police need to be armed for their own safety?’ A comparative study of police militarisation, weaponisation, and officer safety in urban communities

Richard Evans1, Clare Farmer1
1Deakin University, Geelong, Australia

In the past thirty years, Australian police have become increasingly militarised in their uniforms and equipment. Arming police, and making their weapons more numerous and visible, is justified in rhetorical terms to make communities safer. It is “common sense” that police need to be armed – otherwise they would be unable to do their job. The implication is that a police officer without a gun is automatically helpless and ineffective.

This dominant discourse is remarkable, given Australia’s strong cultural, social and historical links with Great Britain. In Britain, operational police are not routinely armed, nor is there public pressure for this to be changed. To the contrary, that police should continue to be unarmed is the “common sense” position.

Our project is testing the belief, often expressed as an unchallengeable truth, that in addition to community protection, arming police is essential for officer safety. This trump card is typically used to assuage any underlying concerns and counteract demands for further discussion.

Key literature argues that armed, aggressive and/or military-style policing can impact negatively on officer safety, but this contention has not been systematically tested against real-world experience. Our study is comparing urban communities which are similar (in size, political stability, socio-economic indicators, levels of violent crime and the like), but differ in the degree to which police are armed and/or present a military appearance. Put simply, we seek an evidence-based answer to the question: “Do police need to be armed for their own safety?”

Richard Evans and Clare Farmer are both lecturers in criminology, based at Deakin University. They share an interest in policing styles and violence prevention. They are joint authors (with Jess Saligari) of the “Mental Illness and Gun Violence: Lessons for the United States from Australia and Britain”, Violence and Gender (3:3 2016).

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