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Last Updated: Friday, 9 January, 2004, 13:10 GMT
West: Arming the Police
Paul Barltrop
Paul Barltrop
Political Correspondent, BBC West

The Avon and Somerset Police have become the first in Britain to send officers out on routine duties carrying guns.

Armed police
Police officers with semi automatic weapons

Some say it is inevitable given the record levels of violent crime.

But there are warnings that it can only encourage the growing gun culture in the West Country.

The sight of police officers carrying guns is more common in our towns and cities. Marksmen take aim around armed sieges.

Officers with semi automatic weapons carry out raids on serious criminals.

In inner city Bristol there have even been armed patrols on foot in response to an upsurge in gang violence.

Guns carried openly

Chief Superintendent Mark Thompson
Decision was taken for police officers to carry a handgun

But this has never before been seen; an officer on routine traffic duties during the daytime, on a busy main road, with a handgun in a holster at his side.

And it is not a one off, because armed response police who routinely patrol the city have been told not to leave the guns in their cars as they used to.

Chief Superintendent Mark Thompson explains;

Due to changes in vehicle design and difficulties in fitting safes in the front of all the vehicles we need for patrolling our force's roads, the decision was taken in May 2003 for officers to carry their handgun, leaving other weapons locked safe in the back.

Many are uneasy

Andy Palfreman, Police Federation
Police officers do not want to be armed

Officers carrying guns on a routine basis is something the Police Federation is against.

"We conducted a survey and overwhelmingly, rank and file police officers don't want to be armed," says Andy Palfreman, the federation's representative in Avon and Somerset.

The force insist it is only a very small number of officers who have been given authority to carry their handguns in this way, and point out that armed officers have long patrolled the city, it is just that previously their weapons were locked out of sight.

Chief Superintendent Mark Thompson said;

This is a voluntary role carried out by highly trained officers who spend the majority of their time engaged in routine road policing activities, but who, when the occasion arises, must be in a position to respond immediately to armed incidents.

The Avon and Somerset force have no plans to change their policy, so officers carrying guns could become an increasingly common sight on our streets.

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