Bobbies and Billy Clubs:Time to consider Guns!
February 21, 1994
Bobbies and Billy Clubs: Time to Consider Guns
By WILLIAM E. SCHMIDT,
LONDON, Feb. 15— The stabbing death of a London patrolman on a routine robbery call this month has provoked debate over one of Britain's most familiar traditions: has the time come for police officers to scrap the venerable image of the unarmed bobby on the beat and to carry better weapons, even guns, to defend themselves?
Although a British officer is much less likely to be killed on duty than an American officer, the risk of assault is growing because of the stronger links between crime, drugs and weapons, police officials say. In England and Wales, 10 officers have been killed in criminal attacks in the past five years, compared with 328 in the United States.
According to Home Office statistics, about one in every seven police officers in Britain is likely to be assaulted this year; the rate is comparable in the United States, where the Federal Bureau of Investigation says about 18 percent of officers are assaulted each year. Risks Increase
"We have got to do more to train and equip police to defend themselves," said Stephen Kissane, an inspector on the Hertsfordshire force and an expert on police self-defense with the Association of Chief Police Officers. "Our officers now go into situations with little or no protection, while the people they are facing -- the drunk, the druggie, the yobbo -- are often armed. They may not be carrying a gun, like they do in your country, but increasingly they will probably have a knife."
As a result, police associations and union groups have stepped up calls for better police protection, urging that items like body armor and longer truncheons be made standard equipment. And a small but growing minority of police are also demanding sidearms for British officers.
The killing of Sgt. Derek Robertson, a 39-year-old father of two, underscored the worst fears of officers in London. According to the police, he was attacked without warning and in broad daylight by three men, moments after he responded to a robbery reported at a South London post office. The attack was so sudden that it suggested the kind of violence that many Britons associate more with America. 3 Deaths in a Year
The killing was the third police death in Britain within a year. In October, an officer was shot to death by a drug gang in South London after answering a burglary call, and last March a patrolman in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne was stabbed to death. Last summer an officer in Kent was nearly killed by a robber carrying a submachine gun.
"It will be a sad day when the police are all armed," said Mike O'Brien, a Labor Member of Parliament and parliamentary adviser to the Police Federation of England and Wales. "But each death brings more cause for it."
Except for special response units and antiterrorist squads trained to use guns, 9 of every 10 British officers still carry 15-inch wooden batons or billy clubs as their only weapon. The Weight of Tradition
Despite the pressure from police groups, the Government remains strongly opposed to issuing guns to ordinary patrol officers. It has also balked at demands from police associations that officers be allowed to carry 24-inch-long, American-style side-handle truncheons. Last year, the Government permitted four-month trials of those batons and others in 18 districts, but no decision on their use nationally will be made until later this year.
Peter Waddington, director of criminal justice at Reading University, said that the decision against arming officers was made when London's first police department was founded in 1829 and that the force of tradition maintained the practice.
"It was based originally on the idea of policing by consent," Mr. Waddington said. "The notion then and now is that a citizen ought to accept the authority of a police officer out of respect, rather than fear or awe."
As a result, he said, the minders of that tradition have been loath to adopt any change that might signal "a more aggressive or adversarial relationship between the police and public."
But some officers argue that such notions are outdated, given the social and cultural changes that have remade Britain, including the deterioration of some poor urban neighborhoods where violence is now endemic.
To protect their officers, some police departments have begun to supply body armor. In Northumbria, the department approved last month the purchase of 600 mesh vests, which weigh 10 pounds each and cost about $360, after the stabbing death of an officer last year.
It is a measure, perhaps, of the growing violence that even ambulance crews in Manchester are considering body armor, after nearly 80 incidents since last spring in which medics were the targets of violence.
While tough laws make it difficult for criminals to obtain handguns, guns play a growing role in crime in Britain. According to the Home Office, guns were involved in 13,305 offenses in 1992, the last year for which statistics are available. While that is less than 1 percent of all reported crimes in England and Wales, it represents a 10 percent increase over 1991. Dangerous Knives
The threat became even more apparent early this month when the police near Liverpool discovered a cache of automatic weapons and other arms, including machine guns, Armalite rifles and AK-47s. At first the police suspected the Irish Republican Army, but it turned out the weapons were being traded among ordinary criminals and drug dealers.
Still the police say knives, not guns, remain their greatest worry. Of seven officers killed in the past three years, four were killed by knives. In Scotland, knives were used in more than half of all killings last year.
Carrying any concealed knife is a criminal offense in Britain, but the police have pushed for stronger laws against the more dangerous types, and police stations around the country provide bins where people discard knives, no questions asked.
"Because of our gun-control laws, criminals turn to knives, since they are easy to get," said Inspector Ian Metcalfe of the Bedfordshire Police Department. "In some ways, I'd rather face a gun. With a gun, there is always the chance they will miss."
Photo: As violence rises, British police officers find their 15-inch night sticks a poor defense. Some want guns, others clubs. Constable Jackie Rayner fended off a knife-wielding "assailant," Inspector Peter Boatman. (David Giles/Press Association)