Police will carry arms on Britain's streets in 10 years, says Met chief: As the Government prepares to launch a White Paper on police reforms, London's top officer tells Terry Kirby that he will be disappointed if there is no new authority

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The Independent Online
THE BRITISH police could carry arms as a matter of routine within 10 years because of the rise in terrorism and crimes involving guns, the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Paul Condon, has warned.

In his first newspaper interview since taking office nearly five months ago, Mr Condon told the Independent on Sunday that the pressures of crime would create an armed service by 'a creeping process' as more and more specialist units and officers needed to carry weapons.

'There will be more and more specialist units and more and more officers on the streets who will have to be armed,.' he said. 'I don't seek it, but . . . it could happen within 10 to 20 years. I do not believe it is inevitable - but it is probable.'

Mr Condon's comments come as detectives in the East End say that they are dealing with one firearms incident a day. Armed crime was one of the 'top priorities' for the force - about two- thirds of all armed crime took place in London - but at the moment it had to take third place behind terrorism and burglary.

At least three million unregistered firearms are believed to be in circulation.

Mr Condon also indicated that he disagreed with Michael Howard, the new Home Secretary, over the decision to backtrack on plans for a police authority for London, which are expected to be omitted from the White Paper on police reforms due to be published this week. He said he would be 'disappointed' if the Police Act 'does nothing for London'.

Mr Condon believes it is a 'historic time for the police.' The White Paper will be followed by the Sheehy Report on pay and rank structure; early in July, the Royal Commission on the Criminal Justice System delivers its verdict.

The commissioner conceded that the London gun battles between factions of Jamaican-linked 'Yardie' drugs gangs had got 'out of hand'. A review of anti- Yardie intelligence-gathering had been ordered. 'It was day-to-day turf war. The level of violence is such that they do not mind shooting each other just to save selling that day.'

Was he concerned that the police had no estimates of the number of illegal guns in circulation? 'How do we know. . . .? If I plucked a figure out of thin air, you would not know whether it was true or false. There is no way of knowing accurately.'

But he insisted that that did not mean the police were ignoring the problem. 'There is much being done, both overt and covert. We have very sophisticated intelligence. We have a network of informants.'

An internal working party has been given three months to produce short- term strategies to deal with the spread of guns and armed crime; but Mr Condon said 'by its very nature a lot of this has to be long-term. You are talking about surveillance and intelligence - you don't pluck that out of a hat'.

Mr Condon was confident figures for all crime were likely to remain level or drop this year, largely due to the intensive Operation Bumblebee anti-burglary campaign. Burglary was 'a quality of life' issue. 'I believe we can make a similar impact on motor vehicle crime.'

Police had to draw up priorities within the resources available, he said. 'It is a cruel fact of life that we deal with the symptoms and not the causes. Modern society generates crime; we will respond to that. We are not the cause of it.' It was for the community to address causes, such as housing and employment; those who wanted to help should become special constables.

In contrast to his predessessors, the commissioner is a strong advocate of a representative authority replacing the Home Secretary as police authority for London. Last month, the Home Office signalled that Kenneth Clarke, then Home Secretary, would scrap any such plans following opposition from Conservative MPs. Mr Howard is said to be unlikely to change the that position. Mr Condon, aware that his stance could bring him into conflict with Mr Howard, says diplomatically that he has not yet discussed the issue with him.

Mr Condon's own plans to reform the Met by devolving it into five areas and putting managers back on to patrol duties have been delayed because of the Sheehy Report, which is expected to recommend fixed-term contracts, enabling chief constables to dispense with poor performers, and the removal of some ranks to create a flatter structure.

One of the reasons he has sought a seven-year term of office was because many of his planned reforms would take a long time to work through the system: 'You don't change a big outfit like the Met round overnight.'

In Kent, he arrived just in time to sweep up after the force had been rocked by allegations that CID officers rigged crime detection figures. In three years he reformed the force, ruthlessly dispensing with middle-tier managers, making everyone learn French and publishing emergency-call response times. It seemed that every speech by a Home Secretary extolled Kent as a shining example of progress; the Oxford-educated fortysomething who had breezed through the ranks in the fast stream, seemed the model of a modern chief officer. Critics accused him of simply adopting every new idea available.

Mr Condon's demeanour, never entirely relaxed, is now more brittle than at Kent and his responses better schooled than those of politicians. It is in the political arena that he must now perform; the Commissioner is a mouthpiece for the whole service.

He does not expect the royal commission to agree to police demands to end the right to silence, but hoped it would 'reset the balance' of the criminal justice system which, largely because of miscarriages of justice, had swung too much in favour of suspects.

He draws a diagram to illustrate that, at one end, police investigations are circumscribed by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act and, in courts, by disclosure rules. 'Almost the only place the police are left to operate now is actually catching someone in the act with large numbers of officers to corroborate each other, with independent witnesses and forensic evidence,' Mr Condon said. 'If that is where society wants us to operate, that's fine. . . .'

He stressed that he does not want to erode the rights of suspects and that he supported ethical policy. 'It is getting more and more difficult to deal with professional recidivist criminals. They know the rules, as do their legal advisers, inside out. What I find strange . . . is very prominent defence counsel who say they have no obligation whatsoever to establish the truth. Where is the public interest?

'What I won't tolerate is the hypocrisy of a society which says, 'By the way, we want both of your arms up your back and will you catch professional criminals?' They cannot have their cake and eat it.'

(Photograph omitted)