Shooting is third by `macho' police force

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The Independent Online
The shooting of Robert Dixon on the doorstep of his home in Huddersfield will add to West Yorkshire police's growing reputation among other forces for the tough handling of firearms crises. Whether the reputation is deserved, it is one that was de scribed by two firearms specialists yesterday as "macho".

Three men have been shot - two fatally - by West Yorkshire firearms teams in the past three years. On New Year's Day 1992, Ian Bennett, 34, was shot dead after a siege at his home in Rastrick, seven miles from where Mr Dixon died.

Mr Bennett had been drunk and was reported by a taxi driver for refusing to pay a fare. In the ensuing siege, Mr Bennett was seen brandishing a gun through a window of his home and he was shot dead. The gun was later found to be a replica, but officers had no way of knowing that they and other local residents were not in danger.

Six months ago, Joseph Cowlam, 64, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease, was shot five times in the chest, pelvis, face and hand after firing a .22 revolver at officers. He survived the shooting but died four months later of natural causes.

A firearms officer with another force said yesterday: "The West Yorkshire boys do have a reputation for being macho and for deciding to shoot when perhaps other forces might go in for negotiation.

"After the shooting of Mr Bennett, there was a highly publicised photograph of a man in full combat gear standing over the replica gun. That was a deliberately belligerent, hard image. All he had to do was pick the gun up, but he posed for the cameras."

However, the force has not been faulted for the handling of any of the incidents in which its specialists have been involved, and other experts cite the inescapable quandary facing armed-response teams: If you see someone pointing a gun - and, as in the case of Mr Dixon yesterday, appearing to fire it - do you wait for someone to be killed before finding out whether the gun is real or not?

Mike Yardley, a former army officer, psychologist and arms consultant, said: "It is fair to say that West Yorkshire police have always taken a fairly innovative approach to firearms. They were the first to introduce armed-response units."

But he added that it was impossible to blame individual officers for incidents that may go wrong. "You simply can't imagine the stress involved when someone points what appears to be a gun," he said. "You can't wait until either you or a colleague is shot."

Polls by the Police Federation and the magazine Police Review show a 50-50 split among officers on whether ordinary PCs should be armed. The Metropolitcan Police force has dealt with 600 armed incidents in the past year and six officers have been shot. Unconfirmed figures show that 36 officers have been killed and 200,000 injured nationally since 1978.

Brian Hilliard, editor of the Police Review, said: "It is mostly the younger officers saying yes and the older ones saying no. What it is true to say is that the use of guns against officers is becoming more prevalent and they feel the need to be protected "However, officers would still prefer to be protected before being armed. Demand is still overwhelmingly for body armour rather than guns," he said.

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