To the casual glance it looks like a normal police car — same markings, same lights, same faces at the wheel. Only the two small yellow circles, one at each of the top corners of the windscreen, tell you that this is a mobile armoury. It will often be a BMW X5: a SUV’s suspension copes better with the weight of the weapons, the gun safe, the ballistic shields. Inside, the occupants will be wearing Glock 17 pistols and have access to weapons which could include, in ascending order of bullet size and ‘penetrative power’, the Benelli Super 90 shotgun, Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine gun, the G36 carbine, the Sig Sauer automatic gas-piston operated rifle, and the G3 sniper and assault rifle.
The MP5 is the standard; hollow-point rounds are used to prevent ‘over-penetration’; that is, bullets passing through a target or wall and hitting a bystander. The police use the single-shot or semi-automatic version: automatics are largely reserved for the SAS, though this may be changing.
Pictures of the Met’s specialised firearms squad, SCO19, in their masks, helmets, boilersuits and weaponry, underline how far we have come from the days when a single, unarmed constable guarded No. 10. Yet the truth is that there are far fewer Robocops than you’d think. Until the Paris attacks, the number of armed police officers in England and Wales was falling sharply. Home Office figures from 2014 show there were 5,875, down more than a thousand since 2008. London, often seen as the main terrorist target, had 2,211 firearms-trained officers, down from almost 2,800 over the same period. Some county forces had as few as 35. Surrey, full of army bases and other potential targets, had only 48 authorised firearms officers.
The majority of these officers will not be on duty at any one time.