Officers favour US baton in battle against attackers: Demands for protection conflict with the desire to maintain traditional policing. Terry Kirby reports

TO MORE than a quarter of a million United States police officers it is 'The Prosecutor', while to their British counterparts it is 'the defensive weapon of the 1990s'. But to Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, it is something which could change for ever the style of policing in this country.

Since Mr Clarke took office in April, he has launched a major inquiry into police pay and conditions and introduced new measures for inefficient officers - but it was his decision to put pressure on chief constables to cancel trials of the PR-24, the side-handled baton, that has arguably caused the most opposition from the ranks.

The anger has arisen because many British police officers see the baton as their one possible source of protection against the rising intensity of violent attacks and had confidently expected the Home Office to sanction its use. That anger is reinforced by incidents like last week's attack on the policewoman in Liverpool.

Mr Clarke said the baton had been used by police in Los Angeles - one of the first forces to introduce it during the 1980s - to beat black motorist Rodney King. He said its introduction could have an adverse effect on police community relations, that he did not believe it would have any effect on the 18,000 injuries sustained by police each year and that there would be occasions when it would be turned against them.

Fred Broughton, chairman of the constables section of the Police Federation, sees it differently: 'The point about the Rodney King incident was that those officers were not trained in its use for control and restraint. If they had been they would have used it to arrest him and not beat him.'

Mr Broughton, who underwent a week-long training course in using the baton in the United States, is a convert. 'All my scepticism vanished. I think it is obviously the best baton for keeping your distance from the attacker.'

The argument against the traditional, 14 or 15-inch (38cms) wooden truncheon is that it is basically a club, which can be used only in a clubbing motion and its most likely point of contact will be the head. It leaves areas of the body open to attack and is too short to create distance from potential attackers or be used martial arts-style as a weapon of restraint.

The argument in favour of the 24-inch (60cms) toughened plastic, side-handled baton is its versatility. It can be used as a rod to reinforce the forearm, as a shield or as a prod to distance attackers or disarm them with a sweeping striking motion - a movement more likely to come into contact with the attacker's arms or torso, rather than the head.

Its opponents say its greater potential for speed and strength and the way it is carried - its hangs from the belt as it cannot fit in the normal truncheon pocket - fundamentally conflicts with the traditional image of British police officers.

David Cansdale, an assistant chief constable of Hertfordshire and secretary of the Association of Chief Police Officers' self-defence sub-committee, pointed out that the baton has already been sanctioned for use by prison officer anti-riot teams, supporting the argument that it is only the public image that is concerning Mr Clarke. 'The difference is that what goes on in prison is not in public view,' he said.

Mr Cansdale believes trials should take place. 'I think that if police are properly trained in its use, it is an essentially defensive rather than an offensive weapon. However, if permission was given, I am not sure every police officer would want to carry one.'

Another argument in favour of the baton is that it keeps pace with the greater physical skills of those the police confront. Tony Judge, a former policeman and editor of Police, the federation's magazine, said: 'Police officers are not equipped to face the high levels of physical fitness and sophisticated martial arts techniques many of their attackers have. A side-handled baton is one way of redressing the balance.'

A 28-year-old unemployed man appeared in court yesterday charged with the attempted murder of PC Lesley Harrison. Stephen Doyle, of Liverpool, appeared before the city's magistrates yesterday also facing one charge of wounding, three of attempted wounding, another of attempted burglary, the unlawful taking of a taxi and driving without insurance. Mr Doyle, who made no application for bail, was remanded in custody until next week.