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Newly armed police in China say they fear their guns as much as public

Thousands of Chinese police were recently handed firearms for the first time in years in an abrupt nationwide policy change that in some cases has had fatal results. Above, armed police in Shanghai conduct an anti-terrorism drill. REUTERS

BEIJING -- In response to terrorism threats, China recently lifted a decade-long ban on police guns and began issuing firearms to officers for the first time across the country.

We plumbed the depth of problems in the wake of these guns in our story today: the sudden spate of suspicious police shootings and woeful lack of training and accountability.

But we also privately consulted officers and gun instructors across the country -- in particularly revealing and rare interviews because police in China almost never talk to foreign media. On the condition of anonymity, half a dozen current and retired officers told us how it feels to carry a gun for the first time, worries they now wrestle with and mounting pressures both on the street and in their departments. Here's what they told us:

Many expressed a surprising aversion to their new firearms.

“I’ve never liked guns,” said one nine-year veteran. Until this year, guns were forbidden to most police -- except for SWAT units and teams on special missions. “Even in past special operations, when we were ordered to have guns, I let co-workers take them instead. You have to worry about it misfiring, about it getting stolen or someone dying improperly.”

A retired officer from Hangzhou City suggested there're tricky issues of pride at play.

In the past, police were praised for daring to confront criminals without firearms, he said. And whenever bad guys got away or a situation spiraled out of control, police could always fall back on the excuse that they were unarmed, unlike police in many countries.

"Now that they have guns, they're in a tighter spot," said the retired officer. "If you shoot, the public may question whether it was necessary. If you don't, they may say, 'You can't even control criminals with the power of  a gun?'"

Blaming the System

The timing is interesting with China arming its officers even as talk grows in the United States of demilitarizing the police forces there in the wake of the shooting in Ferguson, Mo.

Critics complain that Chinese authorities are rarely held accountable for improper shootings. But local officers said that while they may not face prosecution, they often do face internal bureaucratic wrath whenever someone is shot. And if a shooting becomes widely known and sparks public anger, they are sometimes hung out to dry to appease the public.

Most of the police we interviewed blamed the system rather than individual officers for the recent rash of suspicious or wrongful shootings.

Many patrol officers who are now carrying guns haven't fired shot since the police academy, where each recruit is required to shoot five bullets, officers said. One SWAT officer in Guangdong Province said that while his team shoots 100 bullets every morning for practice, regular patrol officers in his district are shooting less than 10 bullets a year.

"There are no standards, every department just makes up their own rules," he said.

Officers attributed the meager training to bureaucratic inertia, lack of funding and accountability. For years, no national standardized test has existed for licensing police. Instead, several officers said, much of their training often focuses on teaching them Communist ideology and anti-corruption slogans -- useless to them on the street.

Proper training, said a 30-year veteran who now advises SWAT teams in Nanjing, isn’t just about shooting accurately but having the psychological fortitude and judgment to respond correctly to pressure situations.

Public Fears, Hollywood Response

No one knows how many people have been shot since officers began carrying guns four months ago because of government secrecy.

But researchers at China’s state-run Legal Daily newspaper published a report last month that suggests a dramatic increase since the policy change. Searching for the keywords “police” and “shot to death” in online news reports, they found 45,100 instances in 2014 compared to 536 the year before. Similarly, instances with the keywords “police” and “guns” rose from 497 to 436,000.

To combat growing fears about their newly armed officers, some departments have become creative. The most popular example has been a series of posters in several jurisdictions of their newly armed officers striking Hollywood action-hero poses.

“You are not fighting alone," reads the caption on one. Wearing light makeup, stoic-faced officers grip their guns as debris flies about. Flickering embers illuminate their skin.

“We made this poster series to encourage colleagues and send positive messages,” wrote Officer Tu Huiyang from the Huangyan police station in central China in a post on Twitter-like Weibo.

At the photo shoot for the posters, many officers were horribly wooden at first, Tu complained in a state media interview. But he got them to relax by asking them to imagine they were questioning suspects.

The Huangyan movie posters were quickly emulated by police in other departments in China, including in Beijing, Chengdu, Yantai and Xinjiang. State-run media reports have praised the posters.

But as police shootings continue to mount, experts say, it will take more than Hollywood lighting to sway public opinion and victims' families.

The government released all these new guns in such rushed manner that "it's now become like a beast they can no longer control," said Fu Hualing, a law expert at University of Hong Kong. "The whole system needs time to adapt."