Story highlights

Fewer than one in 10 London police officers carries a gun, other carry batons or handcuffs

UK politicians question why there wasn't an armed officer at gate outside Parliament

CNN  — 

The terrorist attack on Westminster – the heart of government in Britain since the 16th century – did not come as a surprise to authorities.

In the aftermath of atrocities in France last year, London’s most senior police officer warned that an attack was “highly likely” – a case of “when, not if.”

Given the threat, it may come as a surprise to people unfamiliar with the British model of policing that fewer than one in 10 London police officers carries a gun in their daily duties. Keith Palmer, the 48-year-old officer stabbed to death at the gates of Parliament, was unarmed.

Not all UK police officers are armed.

Only a select number of police officers in Britain are trained as firearms specialists; the rest carry tools including batons and stun guns.

In London, it’s common to see tourists posing with police as they guard the city’s landmarks.

Weak spot

Palmer was standing guard at Carriage Gates, the wrought-iron entrance from Parliament Square that gives onto New Palace Yard, where cars carrying Members of Parliament sweep through into the underground parking lot below.

Paramedics arrive at Carriage Gates, where police officer Ketih Palmer was standing guard, after the Westminster attack.

After plowing a rental car through crowds on Wesminster Bridge, 52-year-old Khalid Masood crashed the vehicle into Parliament’s perimeter fence, dashed round the corner, stabbed Palmer and pushed through into the compound before being shot by an armed officer.

There were questions about why the gate, which can only be used by parliamentary pass holders, was ajar and not bolted shut. “It’s a terrible, terrible day for parliament, the one weak spot on our estate is those carriage gates,” said Mary Creagh, a member of parliament, said, according to The Telegraph.

When asked why an armed policeman was not on the gate, Iain Duncan Smith, a former cabinet minister, said it was a “little bit of a surprise that there was not.” He said the gate was a “vulnerability” because vehicles come and go through it.

However, another lawmaker, Richard Benyon, said on Twitter he was irritated by reports of a security breach, calling it a “highly professional response.”

More police?

London has stepped up security in the wake of the attacks. Mayor Sadiq Khan told CNN that Londoners would see more armed and unarmed police officers patrolling the streets.

“One of the reasons I can say London is the safest global city in the world and one of the safest cities in the world is because there are literally tens of thousands of Keith Palmers keeping our cities safe, working with members of the public who provide intelligence and information, working with our security services,” he said.

Last year, shortly after the Nice truck attack, the Metropolitan Police, which covers most of London and is usually referred to simply as “the Met,” increased its number of firearms officers by 600 to 2,800 – however this is still less than 10% of the total.

However, it’s unlikely that the Met will make a wholesale shift in its policing model.

The previous Commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, who retired in January, said last year the fact that the vast majority of police officers were unarmed “gives us a far healthier relationship with the people we police.”

“Our neighborhood officers – the ones who know their streets, who know their environment and who know many of the names of the people in their communities – are our major weapon. They are our eyes and ears on the street,” he said.

Low-tech terror

The Westminster attack was just one in a series of such relatively low-tech terrorist attacks involving vehicles in the West over the past three years that have typically been inspired by ISIS, says Peter Bergen, CNN’s National Security analyst.

“These attacks are hard to defend against in free societies where crowds will gather, as was the case for Bastille Day in Nice, or the Christmas market in Berlin, or students attending Ohio State – and now the throngs of tourists and visitors that typically crowd the sidewalks around the Houses of Parliament,” he said.

He says law enforcement needs to have a deep understanding of who may be radicalizing before they carry out a lethal terrorist attack. And for that, they need the help of peers and family members.

Community initiatives also help, say analysts at Quillam, a counter-extremism think thank in London.

“If extremist recruiters seek to manipulate grievances, teachers and youth workers must develop programs to address them through promoting democratic responses,” Jonathan Russell, head of policy at Quilliam and Joshua Stewart, a strategic communications officer there, wrote in an opinion piece for CNN.