LEADING ARTICLE: Why police must stay unarmed

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The Independent Online
Forget, for a moment, the detailed arguments marshalled for and against the routine arming of the police. Think instead of PC Phillip Walters as he faced a man brandishing a gun on Tuesday night. It had just gone dark when he arrived at the house in Ilford, east London. He had little idea what dangers lay within. Carrying nothing more than a truncheon, he had few defences beyond his own strength and wit. Many might conclude he could still be alive today if he had carried a gun. PC Walters might conceivably have been able to shoot first, before his attacker had a chance to kill him. In short, we must face the possibility that our scruples against letting him have a gun could have cost him his life.

It is, therefore, unsurprising that Sir Paul Condon, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, said yesterday that he will reconsider whether all his officers should be armed. To avoid tackling this question would be to devalue the life of PC Walters and colleagues - 10 others in the past five years alone - who have been shot dead in the course of duty.

Yet a sense of frustration and anger at their killings should not cloud rational judgement. It would be a mistake to allow all police officers to carry guns, and Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, was right yesterday to rule out this option. While comprehensive arming might indeed save lives in certain instances, it would do little in general to protect officers. Comparing different countries, there is no obvious correlation between the weapons that officers carry and their vulnerability to armed attack.

There would also be a considerable price to be paid in terms of civilian deaths. We would not want to copy the experience of some US cities where the police are responsible for most shootings. Nor do we want to repeat the tragic mistakes and accidents that generally accompany the routine arming of an entire force. Of roughly 100 policemen killed throughout the US each year, 10 are killed by their own weapons. There is also the danger that wholesale arming of the police would lead to a proliferation of weapons among criminals.

British policy has long been informed by these realities. The accidental police shooting of Stephen Waldorf and Cherry Groce in the Eighties led to a reduction in the number of officers allowed to carry arms and to the formation of armed response teams, comprising highly trained weapons specialists. Their creation has coincided with the deployment of armed units in spots such as major airports that are potential terrorist targets. Meanwhile, more officers are being issued with body armour.

All this has been a measured, sensible response aimed at protecting the police while also making sure that well-trained officers with fire-power are quickly available when the incident demands. It is a pragmatic policy that needs periodic re-evaluation, particularly if even Britain's famously tight gun controls fail to contain the wider circulation of weaponry.

The policy did not, of course, prevent the death of PC Walters. Nor will it guarantee that similar fatalities are avoided. But the death toll probably cannot be eliminated, only minimised, as long as criminals bear arms. That is the frustrating reality we must face as we mourn the death of another brave officer.