Armed policing and legitimacy in England

Research Institution / Organisation

University of Southampton

Principal Researcher

Oliver Clark-Darby

Level of Research


Project Start Date

October 2015

Research Context

The police use of firearms generally lacks systematic inquiry, the implicit assumption that police should carry firearms is rarely explored in any depth, particularly when it comes to interrogating whether merely carrying these tools in certain contexts can be detrimental to police legitimacy. The overt carrying of a firearm acts as a reminder to the public that police officers, as agents of the state, are able to use legitimate non-negotiable coercive force, and that the force used can escalate to the point at which someone loses their life. For this reason it has been theorised that equipping police officers with firearms may affect the interactions had between the police and the public, and that these interactions could potentially deteriorate perceptions of police legitimacy.

Whilst numerous sources have proposed policing theory on this matter (Bayley, 1977; Sarre, 1996; Waddington and Wright, 2007; Buttle, 2010), thus far there has been little robust, practical inquiry into this matter. The legitimacy of the police in the eyes of the public is considered to be one of the most important objectives in the policing of democratic countries (Bayley, 1977; Skogan and Frydl, 2004).

By using English firearms officers as a case study, this research aims to understand the existing relationship between armed police and the public. The central research question consists of one main component: How do officers who carry firearms on duty review their impact on legitimacy during police-public interactions?

To answer this question the following issues are explored:

  • What interactions do armed officers have with the public?
  • What do armed officers understand of the police-public relationship?
  • What are armed officers’ perceptions of safety?
  • Do firearms policing practices impact police legitimacy in England?

Research Methodology

​It is locating the actions of police officers and their decision-making within their operational world that makes this study’s use of qualitative research so important. By using Hit and Run Ethnographic methods, the researcher has accompanied Armed Response Vehicle crews over 22 shifts across two different police service areas totalling 219 hours of contact time. Encapsulated within those shifts are also 38 semi-structured interviews carried out with the serving firearms officers accompanied.

Interim reports and publications

​Not available

Date due for completion

September 2019
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