100 Years of the Police Firearm

THE GREAT GUN DEBATE

Since the Bridge Street Affray in 1894, in which five NSW police officers were seriously injured, members have been armed.

The very first conference of the Police Association of NSW, held from 28 February 1921, was a marathon seven-day event. There were a great many debates and members passed 105 resolutions seeking, among other things, lighter automatic pistols to replace the various firearms issued to them.

At the time Police were equipped with the Webley & Scott .32 calibre semi-automatic pistols as well as revolvers of various marks. For example, some Mounted Police were in possession of Adams revolvers which were 15 inches (38.1cm) long and extremely unwieldy.

The 1923 Association Conference called for Mounted Police to be issued with a more modern firearm as the heavy Adams revolver was “…a constant source of annoyance to Mounted Police since it protruded under the tunic and wore out uniform and equipment”.

The Inspector-General of Police promised that the Adams revolvers would be withdrawn and a lighter weapon issued “as opportunity offers”.

Other sidearms in use by police included the .32M1903 and M1910 semiautomatic pistols, Beretta and Colt semiautomatic pistols, Colt .38 revolvers, Mauser, Remington and Savage semiautomatic pistols and Webley and Harrington & Richardson revolvers as well as several other makes.

Association members kept fighting for a lighter and reliable firearm, annual shooting practice (which wasn’t mandatory) and good quality ammunition.

For instance, members at No 4 Branch asked the Association’s Executive to approach the Police Department and expedite the issue of fresh ammunition and inspection of police revolvers.

Executive Member G Folpp who moved the motion in October 1945 commented, “A revolver with dead ammunition is worse than no revolver at all, and it was only reasonable to request the Department to supply fresh ammunition.”

POLICE PREFER REVOLVERS

Following the end of World War II, an influx of weapons led to gun-related crime increasing.

Our members’ lives were endangered on numerous occasions during the 1940s and 1950s due to their automatic pistol getting jammed.

The Police Association strongly advocated for the replacement of the automatic (pistols) with revolvers, as tests had shown they did not jam.

Members also wanted a uniform police sidearm, rather than 26 different types of weapons. The most common were 18 types of .32 calibre.

Addressing the Association conference in 1952, Delegate Mr. Boyd recounted how a Senior Constable at Bathurst had approached a man in a taxi and asked him to produce a gun licence.

“The man, who was a desperate criminal, instead of producing a permit, drew forth a sawn-off shot gun. The Constable took shelter behind a tree and the desperado shot at him. Drawing his pistol, the Constable tried to fire two shots—but it failed to go off,” Mr Boyd reported.

TRAGEDY STRIKES

On 19 December 1963 tragedy struck the NSW Police Force.

Rtd. Sgt Danny Webster recounts the circumstances in his book Beyond Courage (3rd edition) as follows:

On the evening of 19 December 1963 Constable Howe detained an offender named Little near Oaklands and spoke to him regarding a stolen cheque book. He then directed the offender to drive his vehicle to the local police station while he followed in the police vehicle.

En route the offender sped away, and was pursued by Constable Howe for several kilometres. When the offender eventually stopped, the constable approached his vehicle. The offender, who had taken cover behind his vehicle door (the doors opened backwards from hinged centre pillars), then produced a shotgun and shot Constable Howe.

The constable crawled back to the police vehicle where he took cover, and although seriously wounded, returned fire until his automatic pistol jammed.

He then sought further cover by crawling underneath the police vehicle, where he cleared his pistol and fired another shot before it again jammed. The offender then fired at the police vehicle, shooting out the headlights, steering, and the police sign from the top, before escaping.

Constable Howe then wrote the offender’s name several times in his police notebook before dragging himself into the police vehicle. He was only able to drive it a few metres before it ran into a roadside ditch.

After being found, the constable was able to detail the events leading to the shooting. He was taken to the Wagga Base Hospital, however despite a five-hour operation he died at 10.45pm on 20 December, 1963.

Constable 1st Class Howe was posthumously promoted to Sergeant 3rd Class and awarded the Queen’s Police Medal for Gallantry, and the Peter Mitchell Award.

The offender later committed suicide.

Despite his injuries, Sgt Cyril Howe QPM wrote the offender’s name in his police notebook.  Photo courtesy of Justice & Police Museum, Sydney Living Museums

 

Galvanised by Sgt Howe’s on-duty death, Association branches around the state demanded a better firearm.

Finally, at the 1965 Association conference, Assistant to the Officer-in-charge at Police Headquarters, Sergeant J. W. Christie, and the Police Armourer, Sergeant C. Russell announced that 1,000 Smith & Wesson revolvers (.38 Special Model 10) would be issued to frontline Police by the end of June 1965.

Sergeant Christie said the revolver had been selected to replace 20 different makes of pistols being used by Police, a process that was completed by 1967.

The weapon was worn in a crossdraw holster under the tunic and by 1980, the force moved to open-topped holsters.

RISING GUN CRIME

In the Seventies, there were calls for firmer gun laws after it became evident that the police were underpowered.

The 1977 Association conference demanded that “…all general duties Highway Patrol and C.I.B. vehicles be equipped with automatic shotguns, so that when the occasion arises, all Police can be put on an equal footing with armed criminals and dangerous malefactors”.

This was rejected, along with the Association’s request for a permanent Firearms Training Unit.

Instead, the force promised to improve weapons training. The question also arose about securing shotguns in police vehicles and the Commissioner Mr Wood wrote to the New York and Los Angeles Police Departments for advice on carrying shotguns in Police vehicles securely.

These deliberations were overshadowed when, on 30 April 1977, Senior Constables Doug Eaton and Edward Gill were caught in a firefight with armed offenders at Toronto Country Club. The officers had responded to a silent intruder alarm.

Not only were they outclassed by the offenders’ superior firepower, they also ran out of ammunition. In the firefight Senior Constable Doug Eaton was killed instantly, leaving behind a widow and two young children. Senior Constable Gill was seriously injured.

There was a massive public outpouring of sympathy for the officers and over $50,000 was raised for the Doug Eaton Memorial Appeal.

This fatality led to NSW police being issued with six spare rounds in a stripper clip that was added to the appointments belt.

ISSUE OF FIREARMS TO WOMEN POLICE

At first, female members were not routinely armed. Detective Sgt (Rtd.) Gwen Martin, who joined the force in 1960, recalled having to borrow a pistol and attend annual firearm practice, even though she didn’t carry a gun.

In 1974 the NSWPF issued women detectives with firearms and a special handbag to carry it in.

Concerned the handbag would attract thieves, Gwen bought herself a shoulder holster.

She said, “There was no way in the world I was going to carry my gun in a handbag. If your gun was stolen imagine the paperwork you’d have to go through!”

The Association was advocating for women police to be armed as a matter of course by the late Seventies. However, at a meeting on 23 November 1978, the Police Commissioner and Senior Assistant Commissioner refused to change the status quo. That decision was reversed the following year.

DOUBLE FATALITY AT CRESCENT HEAD

On 9 July 1995, the limitations of police revolvers were again exposed in a double tragedy that had ramifications for a range of workplace safety issues.

In the early hours of the morning, Constable Robert Spears and Peter Addison were investigating a domestic complaint in Crescent Head when they were ambushed and fatally shot by the offender.

He was armed with a semi-automatic .233 Ruger rifle illegally modified to include a 50-round magazine.

The officers’ police-issue Smith & Wesson .38 revolvers were simply no match for this superior firepower.

Compounding the situation were failures in radio communication and inadequate officer survival training for high risk situations.

At the time NSW Police only had a few hundred bullet resistant vests (BRV), which were mainly used by specialist police. (The Association previously had been involved in a lengthy battle for BRV following the fatal shooting of Constable 1st Class Paul Quinn and the wounding of Constable Ian Borland in 1986.)

MAJOR DEFICIENCIES REVEALED

Determined to prevent another tragedy, the Association launched legal action against the NSW Police Service over its failure to ensure members’ safety.

It was the first-ever WorkCover prosecution of NSW Police under the Occupational Health & Safety Act.

The Association believed that the lack of modern guns and vests, and deficiencies in training had contributed to the deaths of its two members. While police work can never be made 100 percent safe, there is an obligation on the employer to provide systems that reduce real and potential risk.

Devastated by the senseless killing of Senior Constables Peter Addison VA and Bob Spears VA, PANSW branches supported the Association’s campaign for better equipment, training and radio communications.

Members contributed to Association submissions and participated in committee meetings and working parties.

There was early success when the Police Minister provided funding for 2,450 bullet resistant vests (BRV) to both specialist and first response Police, at a cost of over $2 million.

On 4 October 2001 NSW Police entered a guilty plea to the charge concerning the training of officers in tactics to be used in high risk situations.

A year later, WorkCover’s lengthy prosecution of the NSW Police Service ended after Justice Hungerford found NSW Police guilty under the NSW OHS Act.

A conviction was recorded against the NSW Police and a $220,000 fine imposed in view of the seriousness of the offence.

Over this period a whole raft of work health and safety changes were obtained.

The Police revolver was replaced by the Glock self-loading pistol with a capacity of 15 rounds and a spare magazine containing a further 15 rounds, in December 1997 at a cost of $11 million.

Training in simulated high-risk environments, simmunition firearms training commenced in the 1996/97 training year. The key benefits of simmunition training included improved decision-making in high stress situations, access to the full range of operational tactics, and the use and handling of weapons and torches in at-risk situations.

There were also improvements to radio communications. The Police Service trialled in-car repeaters at Crescent Head. By 1997 $7 million had been allocated for radio capital works and the eradication of black spots.

OVERLOADED: CHANGES TO EQUIPMENT BELTS

The Police Association also initiated changes to the equipment belt.

During 2002 the Association became aware that members were being injured due to the number of items attached to the leather appointments belt. They included the Glock holster and ammunition holder, double hand-cuff pouch, expandable baton, O/C spray, portable radios etc.

Between 2003–2008, there were 346 workers compensation claims as a result of the equipment belt. However, it was evident to the Association that thousands of Police were suffering in silence.

After a great deal of work, in tandem with our representatives on the Uniforms Standard Committee, and numerous trials, the Tactical Load Carrier was approved by the Police Service at the instigation of the Police Association of NSW.

In 2010, Load Bearing Vests were issued to frontline police. Along with this, in 2008 the Association called for the NSW Police Force to evaluate thigh holsters due to Highway Patrol officers being injured due to the incompatibility between car seats and the gun belt.

This ultimately led to a field trial and the provision of thigh holsters on request. Adequate firepower and workplace health and safety remain a priority for the Association in 2020 and beyond.

Currently we’re calling for police cars to be equipped with long-arms and will respond to fresh challenges as they arise.

This article was first published in Police News journal, March 2020 edition