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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 May 2006, 13:53 GMT 14:53 UK
Do we need more armed police?
Armed police officer
Most officers do not want to be armed

The Police Federation is calling for the number of trained firearms officers in England and Wales to increase by about 3,000. Why?

Although this debate comes days after a special police constable was fatally stabbed, it was not prompted by the horrific death of Nisha Patel-Nasri in north London.

The circumstances of that stabbing have yet to emerge and there is no reason in the public domain to suspect her part-time job as an officer played a part.

In fact, it was the murder of Wpc Sharon Beshenivsky last year in Bradford which led to the Police Federation survey, published as it begins its annual conference in Bournemouth.

Seven thousand officers in England and Wales have been threatened with a gun in the past two years, and 40,000 with a knife, according to research by the federation, which represents officers from constables to chief inspectors.

ASSAULTS ON POLICE
2003/4: 21,927
2004/5: 23,267
Source: Home Office

Given this threat, chairman Jan Berry said the number of authorised firearms officers should increase from 5% to up to 8%, and possibly higher in some urban areas.

Yet the federation's 2003 survey suggests the number of officers threatened has dropped slightly. So what's the case in favour of more being armed?

"While police officers do not want to be routinely armed, they do want more firearms officers to be available when needed," says Ms Berry.

Accidents

She acknowledges there have been high-profile cases where the use of firearms has been called into question, such as the shooting of Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes in Stockwell last year, but insists their use is proportionate.

"Accidents do happen as well, but 66,000 calls last year inferred that firearms were going to be used and, out of those, there were less than 18 shots fired by police officers. So, we're not talking about a police service that is out of control."

David Hill is a consultant at Red24, a personal security advisory company, with 36 years experience in the police.

In his time as an officer, he personally faced a knife and a gun but he believes police now have an increased threat of violence in daily situations.

David Hill
If you're stabbed, you could be dead in three minutes
David Hill
Security consultant

Although the federation figures for gun and knife attacks suggest the threat is receding, Mr Hill's belief is supported by the Home Office's recorded crime statistics, which show a slight increase in assaults on police constables from 21,927 to 23,267 last year.

It is the high number of knife attacks that worries Mr Hill the most. He says he would prefer to face a gun than a knife because a stabbing victim is more likely to receive a fatal injury.

"Obviously if you're shot in the head or heart, that's it. But a bullet often goes straight through the body without doing a lot of damage.

"If you're stabbed, you could be dead in three minutes if it cuts a vital artery."

24-hour cover

He does not advocate officers be routinely armed but, like the federation, he wants enough to provide 24-hour cover to every police force.

Not every force has this kind of provision, he says, which means some beat bobbies are not able to get the back-up they require fast enough when in danger.

Armed police
The sight of armed police has become routine

Training needs to be ongoing and is very expensive, he said, but there needs to be more emphasis on non-lethal weapons such as Taser (stun) guns, CS spray and pepper spray. Currently only firearms officers can user Tasers.

In an ideal world each force would have enough resources but they need to make that decision themselves, says Rick Naylor, president of the Police Superintendents Association.

"Training and equipping more people is expensive and when doing budgets chief constables have to make these decisions carefully.

"The safety of people and police comes first and if there is an increase in demand for these firearms officers then the chief constables haven't really got a choice."

Paramilitary

Arming all the UK's police officers has been repeatedly ruled out by chief police officers and the government, who say it would encourage violence and endanger relations with the public.

And a large proportion of rank-and-file officers have always been against the idea.

But even a small increase in the number of armed police is opposed by Perry de Havilland of the Libertarian Alliance.

"I don't think it deals with the whole issue of why this is necessary. What has gone wrong with society and policing that increasingly they have to choose a paramilitary solution?"


BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
A Pc's experience of being threatened with a knife



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