Leiden Law Blog

Eins, Zwei, Polizei. Was ist los, was ist das? The use of firearms by police officers

Eins, Zwei, Polizei. Was ist los, was ist das? The use of firearms by police officers

As reported this weekend, police officers were involved in 24 shooting incidents in 2012. Five people were killed and nineteen were injured as a result of police fire. 

The Public Prosecution Service called these findings remarkable and hinted that, while street violence is rising, police officers might be subjected to greater pressure or more easily turn to the use of weapons.

Jaap Timmer, lecturer Safety and Social Cohesion and police expert, pointed out that the Netherlands is leading in Europe when it comes to the number of casualties from police fire. According to Timmer, this could be related to the wide powers police officers are given when it comes to using their weapons. An alternative explanation is offered by the Public Prosecution Service, saying that the registration in the Netherlands of such incidents has greatly improved.

Something has changed in the police approach towards using weapons in serious shooting incidents. Take the so-called Amok training course. Amok is a Malaysian expression for acting impetuously (running amok). This training course came into focus in 2011 after the Tristan van der V. shooting in Alphen aan den Rijn in April 2011. The course focusses on situations involving serious shooting incidents where the lives of (many) people are in serious danger and it reflects a policy shift in the  role of the police officers at the scene of a shooting. Instead of waiting for a specially trained police squad to arrive, police offers are now expected to go in immediately, take action and take out the gunman as fast as possible. Also in a more general sense, police officers are nowadays encouraged to use less restraint in drawing their weapons.

Could there be a link between this shift in policy and the use of firearms? What can  explain the peculiarity of the recent numbers of police shootings? First, there does not seem to be a  rise in the numbers as a result of this policy shift. There is a suggestion however that there are changes in the situations when police officers use their weapons. Generally speaking, the use of a firearm can be lawful under the Police Officers Order (for example in the case of an arrest) and under the law of excuses in the Dutch Penal Code (for example in the case of self-defence). What Timmer is suggesting, is that police officers nowadays, when they use their firearms, tend to do so more in apprehension situations etc. (i.e. under the Police Officers Order), rather than in cases of self-defence. ‘This is a more sensible and safer practice’, he claims. This would, I suppose, mean that the use of firearms has moved to the forefront (in making arrests, for example) rather than waiting for situations that might lead to shooting in self-defence. But beware: this does not necessarily represent a shift towards a more precautionary use of firearms. What it suggests is that police officers could be more inclined to use firearms in cases of public disorder or when making an arrest. Could that be the influence of the policy shift?

According to the latest numbers, half the firearm cases involving police officers had to do with self-defence. We don’t know whether this represents a shift ( if so, what kind of shift?) in the use of firearms by police officers. But this is something we need to know to assess the legitimacy of the use of firearms by police officers. 

I recently went to a shooting training. The training was delivered by the police IBT group (Team for Internal Assistance). The presentation and course included the actual use of a firearm. The most compelling experience I had was the intimidating force such a weapon has. We know from research that the use of firearms has great impact on police officers themselves. That in itself is a natural source of restraint.

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