Leading Article: Equality in the line of duty

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The Independent Online
PC LESLEY HARRISON was stabbed in the heart by a suspected burglar armed with a screwdriver and a knife. She had driven to the scene of the crime in a tough part of Liverpool on Saturday night, accompanied by a female colleague, following a 999 call.

It was the fourth occasion in five years in which PC Harrison had been injured while on duty. She had been beaten up for no apparent reason by youths during a street brawl, hit by a brick during a riot and hurt while attempting to arrest a thief. PC Harrison was quoted after a previous assault as saying: 'I guess I'm the unluckiest policewoman on Merseyside.' The truth is more complicated. PC Harrison was not merely unlucky: she was a victim of a society that is both increasingly violent and preoccupied with the need to treat women as if they were men to avoid accusations of sexual discrimination.

More than a quarter of new recruits to the police service are women. Since 1976, sex discrimination legislation has meant that separate career structures have been abandoned. It is no longer acceptable for women to deal only with domestic disputes or the victims of sexual violence. They are expected to perform the same tasks as male colleagues.

Many police services, including Merseyside, refuse to consider sexual balance when assigning crews to vehicles. It is not unusual for two women to patrol mean and violent streets together, or to arrive on the scene of a brutal crime unaccompanied by male officers. The Police Federation, chief police officers and the Home Office remain united in their belief that it would be wrong to curtail all-women patrols, even in the most dangerous of circumstances.

The truth is that, by and large, women are more vulnerable, physically, than men. Women police officers are natural targets for cowards who might hesitate to pull a knife on a policeman. Some bullies take extra satisfaction from hurting or humiliating a woman. The Home Office and police authorities should think again, in a less doctrinaire manner, about the circumstances in which policewomen are sent alone, or virtually alone, into potentially dangerous situations.

In other countries policewomen are expected to perform dangerous duties. But there the police are routinely armed. The gun is a great equaliser, one that is (on balance, rightly) denied to British policewomen as it is to policemen. If this policy is to be maintained, it is for the Home Office to consider other ways of redressing the balance. The simplest would be for the Home Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, to permit tests on US-style long batons, which the Police Federation would like to see replace the truncheon.

The argument in favour of batons is that they can be used to keep a knife-wielder at bay or held up as shields to deflect a knife- blow. The case against them is that they were the weapons used by the Los Angeles policemen who savagely beat Rodney King. This is pathetic. If Mr King had been stomped rather than beaten, the Home Office would surely not have banned police boots.

The number of crimes of violence continues to rise, and knifing has become one of the most common ways of injuring or killing. It is necessary to consider how best to strike a balance between equal opportunities in the police service and an honest recognition of differences between the sexes.