Drive-by shooting may force police to wear body armour

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All police officers on London streets may be forced to wear bullet-proof body armour following a drive-by shooting in which two constables narrowly escaped serious injury.

Gunmen fired least 10 machine-gun bullets at police, one of which grazed the shoulder of a woman constable in a police van. Several officers could have been killed, the deputy head of the Metropolitan Police said yesterday.

Scotland Yard said it was becoming so concerned about the number of gun-related incidents, mostly linked to the trade in crack cocaine, that it planned to significantly increase the number of firearms officers on the streets.

The Metropolitan Police is considering increasing the size of its SO19 firearms unit by reducing the standard of tests officers have to pass before they can carry a gun. Bullet- and stab-proof vests are only worn by officers at all times in public in four boroughs - Hackney, Haringey, Newham and Waltham Forest. In most cases it is up to officers whether they wear the protective vests.

But following a spate of shooting incidents, Sir Ian Blair, the Deputy Commissioner of the Met, said yesterday that his force was considering making it compulsory for officers on public view to wear the £200 vest. The latest shooting took place just after midnight on Saturday after riot officers stopped a car in Leytonstone in east London. As they were talking to its occupants, a car drove past and sprayed the vehicle and a police van with automatic gunfire.

One bullet went through the police van and hit a police constable inside, but was deflected by her vest and grazed her arm. Several other bullets peppered the front of a Chinese restaurant. Police chased a black Saab estate, which was later set on fire. Two boys, both 17, were arrested but were later released without charge.

The injured officer was treated in hospital along with a male constable who suffered from shock.

Sir Ian said the gun attack had enormous significance and was "potentially the most serious event the Met could have had for the past decade". He added: "There were 10 bullet holes in the car. Some passed through and went into a Chinese restaurant at the back. That potentially could have left us with a number of dead police officers and changed the landscape of policing irretrievably."

In the past few years there has been a huge increase in gun crime and in people being shot dead in London. Most of the killings and injuries are caused by rival drug dealers, usually selling crack cocaine, fighting over territory. Operation Trident, the police response to the shootings, has in the past year been very successful in reducing the number of firearms incidents, which have fallen by 4 per cent - from 151 to 145 - between April and December last year compared with the same time the previous year. But there are growing fears that gunmen are increasingly willing to shoot at police officers to escape capture.

There is a growing demand for armed police and the Met is considering dropping one of the hardest tests to qualify as a firearms officer - the skills needed to make a forced entry into a building. Firearms officers without this qualification can still be used on street patrols and as back-up. Firearms officers also act as sky marshals on aircraft and at airports considered likely targets for terrorist attacks. The Met is one of six police forces providing armed officers in and around commercial aircraft.