LEADING ARTICLE: Unarmed caution from the police

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The Independent Online
It is easy for us to oppose routine arming of the police. Safely seated behind an office desk, the world does not seem such a dangerous place. We can marshal many arguments against giving all officers guns. We can cite international evidence that carrying a weapon does not seem to protect officers from attack. Statistics show the alarming number of civilians, and indeed officers, who are injured when police possession of firearms is widespread. There is also good reason to believe that wholesale arming of the police leads to a proliferation of weapons among criminals. Finally, we can point to public opinion. Recent polls indicate that only one in four people would support routine arming of the police.

Yet none of this evidence is compelling while the opinion of police officers themselves is excluded from the discussion. For it is the police who, on a day-to-day basis, have to face armed criminals and the possibility of instant death. The killing of PC Phillip Walters last month is fresh enough in most people's minds to remind them that the threat to the police is real.

So the result of yesterday's poll of police officers is of considerable importance. Four out of five said that they were opposed to being routinely armed. Some 83 per cent, however, want an increase in the number of officers trained in and issued with firearms. And 90 per cent want body armour to be issued.

These results should carry great weight. They show that officers recognise that guns, for all their apparent attraction, even glamour, are more of a liability than an asset. Last month Sir Paul Condon, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, said he would reconsider the wholesale arming of the police. He should take his lead from Michael Howard. The Home Secretary has sensibly avoided appeasing the clamour for arming the police that inevitably follows the killing of an officer. Given his clear opposition to arming every officer, it seems that we have reached a general and sensible consensus that this is not the time to create an American-style force.

The other message of yesterday's poll is that the police are very worried about their personal safety. The survey reveals that in the past two years more than 52,000 officers had their lives threatened up to 10 times. They rightly want greater protection, a need that will, to some extent, be catered for with the widespread issue of body armour, more effective batons and CS canisters for self-defence. These measures, along with firearms training for a limited corps of officers, are the best way to reduce the threat to officers.