Leading article: After Bradford we need calm debate not hasty change

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The Independent Online

I is a measure of how peaceful Britain still is that the killing of a policeman or woman remains mercifully rare, and still has the power to shock. The latest case has touched a chord in practically everyone, because, rightly or wrongly, the public feels even more shocked when the victim is a woman and the mother of young children. In short, we all mourn the passing of PC Sharon Beshenivsky whose pointless, tragic death while coming to the aid of a travel agency has devastated a family as well as prompting a fresh debate on whether the police need more firearms.

While a debate on national policing of the kind that Sir Ian Blair called for last week may be welcome, we have to hope that anguish and anger over PC Beshenivsky's death in particular won't lead politicians to try to placate those clamouring in favour of handing out arms indiscriminately to the police under the supposition that this would make them or us any safer.

Gun crime is a growing threat, as the Home Office annual statistics on the subject confirm. It may be stable in some of the plusher, lusher, shires but it is rising fast in certain urban districts. Take the Metropolitan area, where the number of recorded police operations in which firearms were authorised has practically doubled in five years from 1,800 to almost 3,600. The West Midlands looks even worse. There the number almost tripled, from just under 500 to almost 1,400.

These alarming figures should make any right-thinking person pause. Gun crime is far from a scare story got up by the right-wing media - and the people most affected are often those in the most deprived areas of the country. Yet the number of police authorised to handle arms in those areas has scarcely risen.

This is, surely, something most people ought to be able to agree on; we need an elite of well-armed police, who can be deployed in urban trouble spots where the use of guns is manifestly at a dangerous level. There also needs to be more realistic debate over issues such as drugs, education, employment and housing that may be associated with this rise in gun crime.

What we do not need - and what the police do not want - is a universally armed force. Possession of firearms would probably not have helped PC Beshenivsky. The gang in Bradford opened fire on the police the moment that they spotted them, and as armed police usually identify themselves and declare their intent to fire before doing so, it is not certain matters in Bradford would have turned out differently had she held a gun.

More generally, most police chiefs say arming the entire force would only multiply the number of guns on the street and encourage criminal gangs to arm themselves to the hilt. It would also lead to more incidents involving innocent unarmed people. The police are in an invidious position. When they shoot dead an innocent man, as with the recent case of Jean de Menenzes, they are accused of being trigger-happy - and in that case there are valid criticisms of police actions. But when the police are shot dead, the cry goes up for the restoration of the death penalty and an increase in the number of armed officers.

There is no easy answer to rising urban gun crime. Even if one answer might be more highly trained firearms officers, such an increase must never be achieved through a dilution of standards. The key is proportion. Any rise in the number of armed officers must be strictly proportionate to the rise in the problem. There are broad questions over the nature of policing in an age of international terrorism that need resolving. What we do not need is immediate changes to the way we police the country on the basis of a single case, however emotive. That way, more innocent people will be shot.

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