Leading Article: Have gun, will shoot

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A month ago in Paris, two car thieves drove head-on at a gendarme who was signalling them to stop. Spread-eagled on the bonnet of the car, and aware that the driver was accelerating in an effort to throw him off, the officer drew his pistol and shot both men. At the time, police officers in this country probably welcomed it as admirable Gallic pragmatism. Yesterday morning, in the wake of a similar incident on this side of the Channel involving a suspected car thief, many of them will have been questioning the actions of the officer at the centre of the Barnes shooting.

Armed police officers are entitled to shoot only if they are certain that their lives or the lives of bystanders are in danger, and their training obliges them to shoot to kill; the rationale being that a wounded gunman still has the capacity to shoot the potential victim.

Significantly, in Tuesday's incident, the driver continued his life- threatening course for some distance after being shot twice. The guidelines for armed police anticipate that an officer will shoot only at someone carrying a gun, but there has been one instance in which an armed officer was vindicated for shooting dead a man holding an axe against a hostage's throat. In the present case, police spokesmen have indicated, with some detail, that the officer believed he was in danger of being crushed between two cars. One of those was a member of the complaints investigation team looking into the shooting. A number of other witnesses have claimed that the officer was standing clear of the car when the shots were fired. No one has suggested that the victim was armed.

The officer concerned was one of two constables manning an armed response vehicle. Since the beginning of the year, the crews of such vehicles in London and in Manchester have been authorised to wear handguns on normal patrol duties.Previously ARV crews had to radio for permission to unlock a cabinet in the rear of the car in which their weapons were kept, but that requirement was removed after surveys within the police service had shown that, although roughly half those polled opposed wholesale arming, there was a demand for quicker access to firearms when they were needed. The Barnes incident appears to be the first in which an officer empowered under the new regulations has actually fired a gun.

There will naturally be a full investigation into the circumstances in which an unarmed suspect was shot. If the officer is not exonerated - and police records show that many officers who open fire are treated with unusual harshness - he will undoubtedly face criminal charges. What is certain is that a number of chief constables, tempted to follow the London and Manchester examples, will now draw back from what many observers have seen as a steady escalation towards routine arming of the police.

The writer is editor of the `Police Review'.