More armed police to patrol UK 'hotspots'

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The Independent Online

Scotland Yard is looking to increase the number of police officers allowed to carry guns in the wake of the terrorist attacks on 11 September. The new measures could lead to armed officers routinely patrolling London's streets in areas at high risk of terrorist attack.

Those "hotspots" would include Docklands, as well as Whitehall and areas around high-profile embassies such as the US embassy at Grosvenor Square. According to one senior source, the Metropolitan Police's SO19 squad – the tactical firearms unit – is looking at the "feasibility of immediately arming police officers in certain areas such as Canary Wharf". Currently, armed police are a routine presence at Heathrow and Gatwick airports.

About 1,750 Met officers – out of a force total of 26,000 – are authorised to carry guns, and armed police regularly patrol. Approval for new gun carriers can take as little as two weeks but requires "character" approval from senior officers and includes such details as drinking habits.

A senior Met source said: "Training up more armed officers is one thing we are looking at. There is a full range of options." A spokeswoman for Scotland Yard added: "It is anticipated that the Government will be approached to provide additional funding to meet the increased demands on resources. But it would not be appropriate to discuss details and figures at this stage."

The move would meet resistance from rank-and-file officers. Glen Smyth, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, said: "Our members would prefer not to carry firearms as a matter of routine but that will be dictated by circumstances." He said the current policy of concentrating training on a small number of handpicked officers was the right one. But that situation could change if the terrorist threat increased markedly.

Gill Marshall-Andrews of the Gun Control Network, a pressure group formed in 1996 after the Dunblane massacre, said: "The police should have as few guns as is commensurate with them carrying out their duties. We would very much not want them to carry guns routinely. It puts the police at risk and certainly puts the public at risk."