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Police seek wider use of armed patrols

THE ROUTINE arming of Britain's police moved a step closer yesterday as one of the country's chief officers warned there could soon be regular armed patrols in inner-city trouble spots.

The call came as chief constables recommended allowing officers in existing fast-response vehicles to wear sidearms openly, and allowing more junior ranks to authorise the issue of firearms in emergencies.

Police are already developing all-purpose bullet- and stab-proof armour for patrolling officers and investigating the use of types of 'pepper' gas, in response to the rise in armed crime.

Speaking at the Association of Chief Police Officers' summer conference in Bournemouth, James Sharples, Chief Constable of Merseyside and outgoing chairman of the association's firearms committee, said forces would have to consider vehicle patrols by trained officers in areas where police were daily confronted by armed criminals.

Armed routine patrols 'could come sooner rather than later', he said. Although the rules surrounding them were being relaxed, existing Armed Response Vehicles (ARVs) - with teams of armed officers who are called to specific firearms incidents - were not enough in such situations.

'Firearms incidents are increasing,' he went on. 'In the past, armed professional criminals would normally be the culprit. Increasingly now, it is the young hooligan going into the corner shop, bank or building society. It is the drug-dealer seeking to protect territory or turf. There is a wildness about the scene, more sophisticated weapons. We are seeing Kalashnikovs, Armalites, Uzis, on a fairly regular basis.'

In Merseyside, more than 40 automatic weapons had been seized in the last nine months. 'At the moment we react to events. But if the situation in certain parts of the country were to continue to deteriorate, that might turn into regular routine patrolling by armed officers.'

Delegates later heard several recommendations by the firearms committee aimed at making arms more available to police. The proposals will go to the Acpo council where they are expected to become police policy. They include changes in procedures to allow all ARV officers to wear handguns openly, although permission would still be needed to draw the weapons. They also want officers in charge of a police station, even if it is someone in the lower ranks of inspector or sergeant, to have the authority to arm officers or deploy firearms when an emergency firearms incident happens.

These developments follow changes in the Metropolitan Police, announced in May, where ARV officers are allowed to wear their Smith & Wesson .38 handguns openly when called out to most types of incident. Police in the armed response vehicles no longer need the permission of a high-ranking officer before removing guns from a metal box in their cars.

These measures are expected to spread to other forces around the country, a move that civil rights groups fear will result in innocent people being shot.