BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Arabic Spanish Russian Chinese Welsh

 You are in:  UK
Front Page 
Northern Ireland 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Wednesday, 18 July, 2001, 09:28 GMT 10:28 UK
Between the baton and the bullet
With two members of the public shot dead by police in as many weeks, the use of "live fire" by officers and the less-than-lethal alternatives have come under scrutiny.

The image of British Bobbies on the beat with little more than a truncheon to defend themselves no longer rings true. Today's police officers have swift access to far more lethal arsenals.

Police marksmen
Machine guns can be deployed on British streets
While few officers carry firearms on a daily basis, forces across the UK boast rapid reaction units equipped with the sort of weaponry many people would expect to be confined to the battlefield.

While a variety of self-loading pistols have been issued to officers, almost all UK forces have purchased Heckler and Koch MP5 machine guns (perhaps more familiar as the weapons used by the SAS to storm the Iranian embassy in 1980).

Soft option

Such weapons are perhaps even more deadly than their military equivalents, since police forces tend to load them with "soft point" ammunition - frowned upon by the Geneva Convention.

These rounds expand on impact - giving up much of their energy - thus reducing what a recent Home Office report called the "risk of over penetration of the primary target".

A police armed response vehicle
If they fire, police officers aim for the torso
However, the properties of these bullets means any target they do strike is likely to suffer a more serious wound than might have been the case had hard, metal jacketed ammunition been employed.

Police marksmen are supposed only to fire "after conventional methods have been tried and failed or must, from the ... circumstances, be unlikely to succeed," according to Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) guidelines.

The guidelines recommend firing at the torso - the main location of the central nervous system and a larger target than the arm or leg.

While a recent study suggested there were 3,685 gun crimes in the UK in 1999/2000 (up 40% on the previous few years), armed police were deployed 10,928 times in 1999 - according to figures called "conservative" by The Guardian.


Of the 18 people fatally shot by police between 1989 and 1997, six were subsequently found not to be armed, according to figures presented to Parliament.

Inspector Gary Crump, of Scotland Yard's firearms policy unit, says armed officers are also being summoned "to more and more knife incidents. But is that appropriate?"

A gun-shaped cigarette lighter
Deadly gun or harmless replica?
Worryingly for innocent passers-by, Superintendent Colin Burrows, who helped draft the ACPO firearms guidelines, observed that more than half of shots fired by police missed their target.

Sean Howe, of Jane's Police Review, says there is an array of situations where equipment limitations give officers no choice but to resort to lethal force.

"Officers now have long batons and CS spray to tackle suspects up close, but they have nothing available that works over a greater distance. Their next line of defence is firearms."

Alternatives to guns

Following the fatal shooting on Monday of a London man later found to be carrying a gun-shaped lighter, Home Secretary David Blunkett has vowed to explore "alternatives" to live fire.

Baton rounds, so-called plastic bullets, have been used in Northern Ireland for many years. Often portrayed as non-lethal, the rounds have killed at least 17 people.

Police CS spray
CS Spray is "less-than-lethal", but still controversial
Controversy surrounds a new plastic bullet, called L21A1, which has been cleared for use by British police and soldiers. The round is supposed to be more accurate - thanks to its aerodynamic shape - and thus less likely to go astray and strike the heads of those it is aimed at (or those standing nearby).

However, a Ministry of Defence report said that should an L21A1 hit a human skull "the severity of injuries to the brain is likely to be greater" than with the old plastic bullets.

Yet even when fired at the torso, baton rounds can cause potentially fatal damage to organs and arteries.

Less-than-lethal weapons

The Police Scientific Development Branch is examining less dangerous "kinetic energy weapons" - including guns which fire bean-bags - as a means of subduing close standing assailants.

The Police Federation has urged the Home Office to test the American A3P3 gun - capable of squirting a disabling stream of pepper spray over greater distances than current issue CS containers.

New-style police baton
What to use between the baton and the bullet?
Northamptonshire police have already begun trials on another American import, the Taser stun gun. The devices can fire electric darts over 21 feet (and through two inches of clothing) to deliver an incapacitating 50,000-volt shock.

A Taser was infamously used in the beating of Rodney King by LA policemen. Human rights campaigners fear the device could easily be used not only to overcome suspects, but to torture them too.

While comic book-sounding sticky foams and nets have also been suggested as "less-than-lethal" weapons to "take down" dangerous individuals, Sean Howe points out most methods reduce the risks of harm, but do not removed it entirely.

"It is still possible people could be killed. The phrase 'non-lethal' describes the intent of the police, not the result."

Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more UK stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more UK stories