More firearms finding way on to UK streets, Police Federation warns

More firearms are finding their way on to Britain’s streets with devastating consequences, the head of the body representing rank-and-file police officers has warned.

John Apter, national chair of the Police Federation, which speaks for more than 120,000 officers in England and Wales, spoke out amid growing concerns about the welfare of frontline officers. He said the death of Sgt Matiu Ratana at Croydon custody centre in south London was a “poignant reminder of how dangerous the job is”.

And he warned that rising crime and ministerial pressure for the police to enforce limits on social gatherings have left officers facing an autumn of conflict. “What we have tried to do throughout this crisis is policing by consent,” Apter said. “This pandemic has put that model under pressure.”

Apter’s comments came as police again on Saturday clashed with anti-lockdown protesters at a central London demonstration. Bottles were thrown and police used batons against demonstrators.

Tributes to 54-year-old Ratana, originally from New Zealand, poured in after he was apparently shot by a handcuffed 23-year-old man who had been taken into custody for possession of ammunition and possession of class B drugs with intent to supply.

Ratana is believed to be the first police officer to be shot dead in a British police station. The incident took place in a holding area used to screen suspects for Covid-19.

Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, paid tribute to the officer on Facebook. She wrote: “To all Matiu’s whanau [extended family] across the world, we share your sorrow and have all our condolences.”

“Unfortunately, we are seeing more firearms out on the streets and we are doing a lot to try to combat it,” Apter said. “Sadly, with devastating consequences, firearms are being used. More and more are being seized.”

He suggested that changes to the laws surrounding the possession of firearms may be needed. “I think we always need to be flexible to the changing threat,” Apter said.

Ratana’s death has raised awareness of the increased threats of physical violence that police officers are facing, which have intensified during the pandemic.

During the spring lockdown, there was a 31% rise in assaults on emergency workers, the vast majority of them police officers, according to figures from the National Police Chiefs Council. Many of the assaults involved spitting. Apter warned the government’s insistence that police should enforce Covid-19 restrictions, including a 10pm pub curfew, the use of face masks and limiting gatherings in England to six people, could lead to a rise in violence against officers. “The government has to allow police officers to continue to use their discretion,” Apter said. “They are the people best placed to understand their communities.”

He suggested the new rules being implemented had introduced “a completely different dynamic” that would pose challenges to the police going into the Christmas period, adding: “Clearly the violence is still there but there are more people out on the streets with restrictions limiting what they can do. So clubs and restaurants have got to close and be empty by 10pm and that then means those people going back on to the streets: will they be going back to their houses for get-togethers and parties? At the same time there is an expectation from government that my colleagues will enforce more, and clearly enforcement creates conflict.”

Apter said the demand on policing was back to the level it was at the start of the pandemic. “As well as dealing with the 999 calls, the burglaries, the sexual assaults, the domestic violence, the attacks in the street and everything else, we’ve now got to police this pandemic. The pressure is on us like never before. The expectation is that we will ramp up the enforcement.”

He added that any flouting of rules by people in the public eye made officers’ jobs harder. “Anybody with a public platform and position of authority really needs to think their actions have consequences, not just for themselves but for my colleagues who are trying to do an incredibly difficult job and it just makes it harder.”