ANOTHER VIEW; Why the police are turning to CS gas

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There is great concern over serious injuries inflicted on police officers and members of the public in attacks which increasingly involve knives and other weapons. In 1995 police officers were surveyed on the general arming of the police. The result showed a very responsible attitude, with the majority resisting general arming, but highlighted the need for proper protective clothing and defensive equipment.

The service is now looking at both equipment and techniques to combat violence. The Home Secretary has been very supportive.

A lot of work is being done in producing body armour that protects against both guns and knives. Most chief constables have also chosen one of the new-style batons available. These have successfully reduced the overall number of assaults on police officers but the severity of the attacks has risen. This has been tragically highlighted in the West Midlands this week where a number of officers have been seriously wounded.

This is why we badly need a further non-lethal option to deal with violence. There are many different devices available, but many are wholly unsuitable for use here. CS gas spray, however, is an effective incapacitant in keeping with our ethos of policing. For this reason it has been chosen for trials.

CS spray keeps a greater distance between the police officers and their attackers and may be used effectively at a distance of 5 metres. It is a jet stream that is fired directly into the face of the attacker, causing severe distress and discomfort and some disorientation for a matter of minutes. This allows the person to be disarmed and restrained without endangering the police officer involved. Obviously this is essential if the police and members of the public are to be safeguarded against such attacks.

In 1995 the Home Secretary gave approval for such trials, but delays occurred because of concerns over health issues. A careful approach is necessary if the police are to continue to have the high level of public support and confidence that they currently hold. In most forces there is one police officer for every 500 members of the public. This is an indication of the high level of support that we wish to retain. As with most chemical products there is a downside and if improperly used there may be health risks. However, this has to be balanced against the high level of violent threat that the police and public face. It is for this reason that many chief constables are seeking immediate reintroduction of CS incapacitant trials. A meeting of chief constables on 18 January will take a final decision.

Young police officers patrolling the streets have to be properly protected and have a right to expect that that level of protection is provided. I am sure this expectation is backed by the majority of the public, who understand the dangers that officers face.

The service must ensure that such equipment is not misused. But perhaps it is time for the police and public to take a robust line in ensuring that officers receive the support they need. This is in the interest of the police and public alike.

The writer is Chief Constable of Gwent and chairs the Association of Chief Police Officers' sub-committee on self-defence and restraint.