Police volunteers to have CS sprays

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Part-time volunteer police officers are to be armed with CS sprays in a move that has outraged civil liberty campaigners who believe the public could be endangered.

Special constables in North Yorkshire are to be given several hours of training before they are equipped with the hand-held devices while on patrol and during other operational duties. Other forces are expected to adopt a similar policy. Constabularies throughout England and Wales were given the go-ahead last August to issue CS sprays.

The civil rights group Liberty yesterday expressed deep concern about the development and argued that unpaid officers with limited experience should not be armed with such potentially dangerous equipment.

The incapacitant takes immediate effect and causes streaming eyes and nose, eyelid spasm, breathing difficulties, and in some cases blistering of the skin. Two chief constables - of the Surrey and Hertfordshire forces - are refusing to arm their officers with CS spray because of the possible side-effects.

The spray was introduced to tackle the growing number of attacks on police officers. Six-month trials held earlier this year resulted in a drop in the number of assaults. CS sprays were used on 582 occasions during which five people needed hospital treatment but no one suffered long-term damage.

John Wadham, director of Liberty, said: "We are already very concerned about the use of CS gas sprays by full-time trained officers. Giving special constables access as well is bound to lead to further risk to members of the public.

"Specials are much more likely to be panicked into using the sprays when confronted with difficult situations than the far more experienced full- time regular police officers."

Liberty has highlighted two cases in which, they argue, CS spray was incorrectly used. One last March involved a man who died in police custody in east London after CS gas was sprayed into his face although his arms were handcuffed behind his back. However, police have stressed that a post-mortem examination found that Ibrahima Sey, 29, was suffering from heart disease. In the second case a group of nightclubbers is to sue Merseyside Police after officers allegedly released CS spray into their coach, and shut the doors.

But Tony Lidgate, a spokesman for North Yorkshire police, which has about 350 special constables, defended the force's decision to arm the volunteers. He said: "Nobody in the force will go out with a CS spray until they have been fully trained by police instructors. We believe our specials should be properly protected. They are people who are giving their own time and putting their life and limb on the line for the community."

A Home Office spokeswoman added: "If chief constables want to equip their specials with CS spray it is entirely up to them. The chief constables are there to ensure that all officers are properly trained."