Call to arm police with gas: Chief constables say US-style pepper spray would protect patrols by rendering attackers helpless. Terry Kirby reports

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CHIEF constables yesterday called for the immediate issue of American-style 'pepper gas' to police officers on routine patrol as a means of stopping violent attackers.

Although the Association of Chief Police Officers said the time was not right for more routine arming of the police, it spelt out a number of measures which it said should come into immediate effect to protect officers on the streets from guns and knives.

Pepper gas, made from oil of peppers - Oleoresin Capsicum - is widely used in the US and Canada and is said to be highly effective in instantly incapacitating attackers, who are overcome with severe respiratory problems. It renders them, one chief constable said yesterday, 'as helpless as a baby'. The spray can be used at close range and its immediate effects last for between 30 and 60 seconds before the person recovers, although limited side effects can continue for up to an hour. Officers can carry the small cannisters in their tunic pockets.

Speaking after the quarterly council meeting of the association, its president, Sir John Smith, deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, said the Home Office should approve the issue of pepper gas as soon as possible to officers at greatest risk of attack. It was unnecessary to have formal trials because these had already effectively taken place in the US.

It was intended that the spray would only be used in life-threatening situations; there was no suggestion that officers would be allowed to use it, for example, to quieten a street brawl, he said.

Additionally, Sir John said, chief constables wanted the 'very, very speedy' completion of trials of long side-handled batons, currently taking place in a number of areas, and their issue to officers. 'The time has now come when our police officers are rightly saying to us we have been talking about these things for so long and we demand some action.'

The meeting also agreed urgently to examine how to introduce more 'flexibility' into the levels of senior officer authorisation for the issue of firearms, and to encourage forces to distribute protective clothing to officers.

Sir John said that, although 'there is real fear out there on the streets', the meeting had reaffirmed that the service should remained routinely unarmed. Most police officers had not joined to be permanently armed and were not mentally or physically equipped for the task.

James Sharples, Chief Constable of Merseyside and chairman of the association's committee on police use of firearms, said criminals were showing an 'almost wilful disregard' of public safety by increasingly using knives or guns; the service was being driven towards greater arming by the pace of events.

Dismissing suggestions that pepper sprays were carcinogenic, or that long batons were provocative, John Hoddinott, Chief Constable of Hampshire, said: 'It is time to sweep away the niceties that might hinder us making progress . . . we need to complete the defensive weaponry available to officers.'