Police force relaxes rules on officers drawing guns: Inspectors will be allowed to sanction use of firearms

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The Independent Online
SOUTH Yorkshire Police has become the first force in the country to allow firearms officers to draw weapons on the approval of an inspector instead of an officer of the rank of assistant chief constable or above.

Armed officers in South Yorkshire, who carry pistols, Heckler and Koch rifles and body armour in patrol cars, will be allowed to draw arms after the radio approval of a duty inspector. This is a major shift in policy and will almost certainly fuel the debate about the police being constantly armed. It has already led to a large increase in the official record in occasions when police weapons have been drawn, if not fired.

Up until now the teams of qualified firearm officers who make up South Yorksire's armed response vehicles on constant patrol throughout the force area, have had to meet at a specific point to await approval from a high-ranking officer, before unlocking their weapons. This has been time-consuming and, as far as senior officers in South Yorkshire are concerned, has put the lives of policemen who answer emergency calls at risk.

There are about 159 policemen and two policewomen qualified to use firearms in the force. About 50 make up the specialist firearms special group.

The force is testing a laser targeting device on its 26 Heckler and Koch (M25) semi-automatic rifles. This weapon has a rapid single-shot facility, a slightly different version to the one used by the Special Air Service which has no restriction on rapid fire.

The need for the change has come about because members of the firearms teams believe it is safer to deploy fully armed and properly trained officers to incidents when there is some risk of them having to face armed criminals.

Richard Wells, Chief Constable of South Yorkshire, also believes that decisions within the force should always be made at what is called the 'appropriate level' and it is felt a duty inspector is of sufficient rank to deploy firearms.

Chief Insp John Brennan, an advanced firearms-trained officer, said: 'The main policy change now is that we will be sending armed officers out much more readily . . . Often a police constable would find himself arriving at the scene first and might well have to face an armed man. That is madness. We should not be sending unarmed officers to investigate what may be armed crime. Now, for the first time, we are using armed officers to investigate incidents. It will inevitably mean the number of times we issue weapons, but not necessarily fire them, will increase.'

One senior officer said the change might mean that in a 'dire emergency' armed officers would be able to use their own initiative and draw a weapon without official sanction.