Police in arms race with crooks

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The Independent Online

A police marksman on a rooftop scans the crowd at the Queen Mother's birthday pageant. Cradled in his arm, ready for use in an instant, is his rifle. But this is no ordinary weapon.

A police marksman on a rooftop scans the crowd at the Queen Mother's birthday pageant. Cradled in his arm, ready for use in an instant, is his rifle. But this is no ordinary weapon.

It is a Heckler & Koch G36K, one of a new breed of ultra-high-velocity assault rifles; it delivers obliteration via a bullet that leaves the muzzle at 850 metres a second (3,000mph).

This latest-issue weapon is evidence that British police are engaged in an intensifying arms race with drug gangs and terrorists. Forces are equipping their officers with G36Ks because criminals are now using body armour which can stop bullets from less powerful weapons.

The G36K is so sophisticated that weapons experts say the police are now better armed than British soldiers, whose SA80s performed so poorly in Kosovo that they are being sent for modifications at a cost of £80m.

Although the City of London Police said its G36Ks were configured to be semi-automatic, firing a single shot with each pull of the trigger, it is one of the easiest weapons to convert into a fully automatic machine-gun, according to its German manufacturer.

A spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) confirmed that there was now more "overt" arming of officers, particularly in high-crime areas such as Merseyside and at airports and around courts.The development contrasts sharply with the image of Britain as one of the few countries in the world where most bobbies are armed only with truncheons.

The argument that police need more and better firearms to combat crime received support this month from Home Office statistics which showed that violent crime had risen by 16.1 per cent in the year to March, including a 26.1 per cent jump in the number of robberies. Ministers last week also identified 47 crime hotspots which will receive special attention from police.

At present, police forces are not allowed to have weapons bigger than 9mm, said West Mercia's Assistant Chief Constable Peter Neyroud, who takes over next month as secretary of Acpo's firearms committee. The association, he said, took seriously the danger of civilian casualties, and he has consulted civil liberties groups such as Liberty and Justice on its firearms policies. He said parts of the revised manual, covering general principles, will be made public on the internet, though much of the detail would remain secret.

There is particular concern about the risks to bystanders from police use of such a high-powered rifle as the G36K. A ballistics specialist explained that because the short-barrelled combat weapon's 5.56mm (.223 calibre) rounds are light-weight and leave the muzzle at such speed, they can be deflected by bones in their targets and ricochet in unpredictable directions.

Terry Gander, the editor of Jane's Infantry Weapons, said: "The police need to prepare for the worst-case scenario, but if you had a target without body armour, the round would go right through him."

Police forces are generally reticent about revealing what arms they might have hidden in the boots of patrol cars.

"We use a range of firearms, details of which are operationally sensitive information," said a spokesman for Merseyside Police. "Yes, it is of public interest but it is also of interest to the criminal fraternity."

Industry sources said, however, that British police forces have been a booming part of the global law-enforcement market in recent years for arms dealers selling top-of-the-range infantry weapons.

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