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Thursday, 28 February, 2002, 13:30 GMT
Plastic bullets: the safer alternative?
Policeman training with a baton gun
Baton rounds have been fatal in Northern Ireland
Baton rounds - or plastic bullets - have been available to police forces in England and Wales since June 2001 as an alternative to live ammunition.

The authorities have been under pressure to employ non-lethal methods when responding to incidents where people may be armed with knives, swords and weapons other than firearms.

We've got to be open to the experiences of other forces around the world

Firearms specialist Mike Yardley
In July 2001, 37-year-old Andrew Kernan was shot dead by police marksmen in Liverpool when he refused to put down a Samurai sword.

Later that month, armed police in London killed a man in Brixton who was brandishing what turned out to be a cigarette lighter shaped like a gun.

According to figures presented to parliament, of the 18 people fatally shot by police between 1989 and 1997, six were subsequently found not to be armed.

The incident in north Wales is thought to be the first use of a baton gun by police in the UK outside of Northern Ireland.

Fatal consequences

But the firing of plastic bullets in Northern Ireland since 1973 has been controversial.

They were introduced by security forces at the height of the Troubles to replace rubber bullets following a string of fatalities.

However, 14 people - including seven children - have died after being struck by the theoretically non-lethal alternatives.

The Patten Report on police reform in Northern Ireland recommended research to find an acceptable, effective and less potentially lethal alternative to plastic bullets.

But the team investigating the matter has yet to find a replacement, and is not expected to publish a report until autumn 2002.

Firearms specialist Mike Yardley has welcomed the search for alternatives to live ammunition, but he says there may be a safer option to the plastic baton round.

He referred to the 40mm foam-tipped baton round used by police in the USA and Canada, and British military forces.

New baton round was introduced in July 2001
A new baton round was introduced in July 2001

The former British Army officer says this projectile is less likely to cause serious injury due to its modification.

"We have to say the police are in an extraordinarily difficult position in these sort of cases, particularly the firearms officers on the ground.

"It is a good thing that they are now considering more non-lethal options, but perhaps we need to do more research on the weapons themselves.

"We've got to be open to the experiences of other forces around the world.

"The Americans and Canadians have gone through this learning curve and they've found a better weapon than we've got at the moment."

Other suggested weapons have included electric stun guns, glue guns and dart guns.

Northamptonshire police have carried out trials of the US-made Taser stun gun.

With a range of 21 feet, the Taser was infamously used in the beating of black suspect Rodney King by Los Angeles policemen.

But Mr Yardley says dart guns - similar to those used to tranquilise animals - have been dismissed as ineffective for use on humans.

Firearms specialist Mike Yardley
"The weapon used is not necessarily the best weapon for the job"

Armed officerBaton rounds
Do you support the use of plastic bullets?
See also:

28 Feb 02 | Wales
Man hurt by plastic bullet
30 Nov 01 | Northern Ireland
No moves over bullet issue
17 Jul 01 | UK
Police shooting row deepens
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