How to Write a Convincing Copper — Part 2: Firearms, Tactics and Common Mistakes
This is the second half of our interview with retired police officer, Pete Barclay George with an insight into how coppers think, talk and behave. In the last post we spoke about the police caution, use of language, body cams, ranks and relationships. This article focuses on the action with a look at how the UK police use firearms, the types of equipment they carry and how they might use it.
Use of Firearms in the British Police force
You spent 16 years as a firearms officer. Tell me about the weapons you used.
When I was in the Met I carried an Heckler and Koch MP5 (a lot of people call that a machine gun but it’s not) a Glock (pistol), a TASER, an ASP (baton) and CS Spray. They don’t use CS Spray anymore, they use Pepper Spray now instead — they switched about 7 years ago. Different forces changed at different times. (Pepper spray uses natural compounds but delivers the same effect).
At the Civil Nuclear Constabulary (CNC), I carried a Glock 19 and a Heckler and Koch G36 military style rifle.
We don’t carry fully automatic weapons in this county. For example, if my G36 was fully automatic then I’d only have to pull the trigger once and all the bullets would come spraying out until they’re gone. It’s semi-automatic, so I have to pull the trigger each time to make a bullet come out.
Firearms training in the UK
To carry a firearm, you must be fully trained with continual training and testing throughout the year following an initial, intensive firearms course. Training is focused on tactics, shooting, accuracy and judgement, for a few days every 3 months.
Firearms officers nowadays are fully armed all the time. In the 80s you would go and get a gun when you needed one.
With TASERs, you used to have to be a firearms officer in order to be able to carry one. A TASER is a firearm. It’s classed as a Section 5 firearm as opposed to a Glock or a G36 which are Section 1. Over the last couple of years, non-firearms officers have been able to carry them as long as they are specially trained to carry a TASER.
Shoot to stop — not shoot to kill
People often think that the British police shoot to kill because they go for the chest. But we are actually trained to shoot to stop. People ask us ‘well why don’t you just shoot them in the hand’ but it is too small a target. It’s not like when you’re shooting at a fixed spot. We had Olympic shooters come down and train at the range and it doesn’t matter how good you are — if the target is moving, it is much, much harder to hit, especially if it’s shooting back at you — so they were all missing. Even a leg is hard to hit when it’s moving. If there are a lot of people about, you can’t risk missing the target and hitting someone else by accident. This is why we go for the biggest target — which is the upper body and the chest.
What type of bullets did you use?
In the pistols we use special ‘dumdum’ bullets which expand when they hit something. So, they go into the chest and they don’t come out the other side and hit anyone else. In the rifles we use 5.56 hollow point bullets. These could go right through someone and out the other side, but you don’t tend to be using a rifle in a crowd.
Handcuffs, batons and other equipment
How about handcuffs?
Handcuffs have changed. We used to carry folding metal ones, but we changed to Quik cuffs (also known as Speed Cuffs and manufactured by Hiatt). These have a rigid metal bar in the middle coated with a plastic handle. They are bulkier to carry but they are good because they give you more control. Even if you only have one cuff on you can apply it to a pressure point in the wrist joint and stop the detainee from moving away or evading capture. So, it’s not just a cuff but also a pain compliance tool. They aren’t as easy to put on as the older folding metal cuffs which just snapped onto the wrist. Again, different forces changed to different types of cuffs at different times (They started using Quik Cuffs in 1993).
What happened to police truncheons?
When I first started, all we were given was a wooden truncheon, which was kept down the leg of our trousers in a special long pocket. We didn’t have body armour or anything like that. Then in the nineties they brought in an extendable baton called an ASP. It’s about 10 inches long and you flick it open to 2 feet long. ASPs are made of metal with a metal tip and you use them for striking people in the major muscle groups
What other equipment did you carry?
We were issued with notebooks. Once a notebook had been filled in it was logged in at the station and kept for six years in case they needed any of the information in it. I have seen some officers now using tablets but they all still carry notebooks too.
Radios have changed over the years. We used to have these square blue radios with a yellow button (Burndept). Only one person could speak at a time and people could listen in on them, In the late 80s we changed to the Airwave (Tetra) system which is more like a big mobile phone that does lots of different things — so you could have person to person calls rather than broadcasting on one channel and group calls as well. If we have some sort of situation and we want to cut off all the communication channels between the suspects — including mobile phone networks — the police radios will still work because it’s a different system. (This is due to be replaced soon by a new Emergency Services Network but has not been delivered on time so if you’re writing a modern cop drama you may need to check to see when they are coming in and if it affects your story!)
All police radios have a panic button. So, if you’re in trouble you can press it and your mike will stay open for 30 seconds and you can give your location and the control room and everyone else can hear what’s going on. Of course, you have GPS now as well, but I always used to teach people that the first thing you do is shout out your location — it’s no use saying “I’m in pursuit” They need to know where you are!
Getting it right — avoiding clichés in cop drama
What sort of things do police say in books or TV shows that would never happen?
The worst mistakes I have seen or read are — as I mentioned — you wouldn’t get a uniformed officer of the same rank calling a detective Sir or Ma’am and one thing I hate to see on TV is constables saying “I was just following orders.” They’re not. They are all responsible for their own decisions.
I’ve seen TV shows where a ranking officer will tell a firearms officer to “Shoot him when you get the opportunity.” This cannot and would never happen — except in one, very particular circumstance — and even then, the order can be refused. Often dramas will portray police officers like they portray servicemen (and I have been both), but a police officer is individually appointed as a constable (you basically remain a constable whatever rank you are) and, whilst they have to follow ‘lawful’ orders, they don’t have to follow those that they think are unlawful or unreasonable. For instance, if a higher ranking officer told me to “Arrest that man” then, if I did not have enough evidence for arrest myself I could ask him to explain the evidence to me before I made the arrest or just refuse and tell that officer to arrest the suspect themselves. However, they could say, “That man is under arrest — detain him for me” That would be a lawful order because it would then be down to the higher-ranking officer to explain to the custody officer the reasons and evidence for arrest.
Custody officers have autonomous power. They are usually sergeants or inspectors. If you bring someone in to be charged and they are not satisfied with the evidence, they can release the prisoner if they are not satisfied — because if they don’t then that’s their neck on the line. They need evidence. Within the custody suite they have the ultimate decision-making power. A constable of any rank is personally responsible for their actions and can never use the excuse “I was just following orders.”
Another thing that wouldn’t happen — detectives leading the firearms team into a building or a situation. The senior officer makes a decision based on lots of information — so a lot of thought goes into it and the firearms teams don’t just turn up and follow a detective into a building — that would be sort of missing the point of the firearms team — whose job it is to go in first, clear and secure the scene/building and then call other officers in when it’s safe to do so.
When I was with the riot squad we’d be called to assist with situation. Our tactical commander would assess the situation and make recommendations for a course of action — and everything would be recorded — and the same goes for firearms teams. Something to note in regards to tactical commanders, be they riot squad or firearms is that tactical commander is NOT at rank — it’s a specific, specialised role and is normally filled by constable or sergeant rank. Their job is to advise as to the best possible choices available to the senior officer in command of the incident.
What made you want to work in Complaints?
I honestly couldn’t tell you — but I was shocked. I joined the force to try to help people and then suddenly you’re dealing with bent coppers and all kinds of things. We worked in six small teams — with a chief inspector and two sergeants — and we were kept apart so you didn’t know what other people were working on.
After that I joined the Territorial Support Group — aka the Riot Squad and otherwise known as ‘Thick and Stupid’ cos it was full of big chunky men that liked a bust up. When they heard that I had come from Complaints, no one spoke to me for six weeks. I called a meeting and said to them, “Look, if I was a plant (sent to spy on them) I wouldn’t tell you I’d come from Complaints would I? — I can help keep you out of trouble!” And they were OK after that.
Are there many regional differences?
There are plenty of regional differences. Police can tend to think in a herd mentality sometimes and that has to be guarded against — although it always helps to know, that you are personally responsible for all your actions. You can feel personally responsible for things that happen, even in a group. It becomes tight knit. You’re relying on colleagues for your life and that makes you close. Many years ago, in CID when some people did something wrong they would try and cover it up because they didn’t want to let their best friends down. This is why if you’re working in Police Complaints, they keep you separate and no one knows what you’re doing apart from your small team.
And finally, how important is it to be accurate?
Most books, films and TV shows about the police have inaccuracies in them but, as a writer, you can’t always stick to the facts in a fiction book or it would be too boring! You have to have some sort of balance.
I’d like to thank Pete for this insightful and inspiring interview — I was going to edit it down but I found it all so interesting I decided to turn it into two long blog posts instead (Read part one). If you have a question for Pete you can find him in our Enterprising Writers Facebook Community.
Researching your own crime drama
If you’re researching a police procedural or other crime drama, then you can find plenty of information online:
Wikipedia is OK, but it is not always accurate. It is edited by volunteers so do not use it as a primary data source. It is however a good place to start before progressing to more detailed, factual sources such as gov.uk for specific information.
Reputable news services such as the BBC can give you all of the facts of a case without the sensationalism of a tabloid news site.
Most police forces have their own social media pages — The Met Facebook page is a great example full of information and even inspiration if you’re looking for a writing prompt. But it is important to remember that they are probably putting a positive spin on things, with a dedicated PR team to make the force seem appealing to potential recruits.
If you’re going for total accuracy try contacting a particular force to find out when they started using bodycams, etc — although beware of falling into the trap of paralysis by analysis where you spend hours doing research instead of writing — you can always check and edit your work for accuracy after you have written it.
If you’re researching specific equipment, then you can usually find the manufacturers websites for more details — or if you’re looking at specific items such as old police radios these are often pictured or discussed on specialist forums.
This article by Ali first appeared on the Enterprising Writer blog. We will be launching our new membership website Enterprising Writers on the 14th December 2020. Til then you can find us on the blog or in our Facebook Community Group where we get together to support each other and discuss our work. We also have an Enterprising Writers Facebook page and you can find us on Twitter and Instagram.