Police to test side-handled batons: Howard reverses decision on protection for British officers. Terry Kirby reports

MICHAEL HOWARD, the Home Secretary, yesterday reversed the decision of his predecessor, Kenneth Clarke, and told the police service that it could soon test a version of the controversial 24-inch side-handled long baton.

Mr Howard told senior officers at the Police Staff College, Bramshill, that scientific evaluation of an expandable version of the side-handled baton would begin shortly; if tests are successful, the baton will be tested operationally by a number of forces. He also said that the Metropolitan Police would be able to test on the street three other types of straight baton.

In May last year, in one of his first moves after being made Home Secretary, Mr Clarke stopped planned operational trials of the long baton, deeming it unsuitable for the British police. The decision was largely based on the Rodney King case in Los Angeles, where the officers accused of beating Mr King, a motorist, had used batons.

The expandable version has been designed to overcome one of Mr Clarke's principal objections: that it would have to hang visibly from the officer's belt and thus damage the police's image. This version, made of hardened plastic and steel, compacts to 13 inches, the length of the standard wooden truncheon. If issued it would hang from a belt loop within a tunic or coat; it would be visible on officers in shirtsleeves.

Mr Howard said: 'We ask the police to do so much for us. When they ask for something from us we should listen. If the expandable side-handled baton is proved to protect police officers, particularly women police officers, from attack, my position is clear. They should have it. The rigid side-handled baton, with its aggressive appearance, is inappropriate for our police officers. The new expandable baton, however, is much less conspicuous to carry.'

But he made it clear that the baton would be issued only after scientific evaluation. Its advocates say that proper training is needed for it to be used effectively as a weapon of self-defence and that in the Los Angeles case the officers had not been trained correctly.

On 5 July, the Metropolitan Police will begin trials of three straight batons that have already been scientifically evaluated. One is a 20 1/2 -inch nylon baton, similar to that already routinely issued to Dorset police officers; the second a lightweight 26-inch baton of rattan coated with rubber; and the third a truncheon that extends from 14 to 24 inches.

Avon and Somerset police and Merseyside police are already testing versions of a thinner steel baton which extends from 12 to 20 inches.