Letters: Armed police

Armed officers bear heavy responsibility; don't rush to judgement
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Sir: As a serving Police Constable I was disappointed by the biased reporting in your cover story "Shot dead by police"( 21 October). Having been confronted by a man with a gun, I will tell you how it feels.

One New Year's Eve I was on duty when a group of women had an encounter with a drunken man in a pub. They tolerated him for a while, but when they tried to leave he showed them a handgun in his jacket and forced them to sit. One of them made an excuse to go to the toilet and raised the alarm with the bar staff. When the police arrived he had left and, while walking past another pub popular with soldiers, pointed the pistol through the window causing three soldiers to drop to the floor, thinking they were about to be shot.

Local police organised a search which led to the man being pointed out to me. As I approached someone shouted "There he is!" making him turn; I was only 10 feet away and an easy target. He drew a pistol from his jacket and aimed it at me. I reasoned with the man, while thinking "I am not going home to my wife and child tonight". He was clearly drunk and unsteady on his feet and when he turned away, I jumped on him and wrestled the gun from him. Other officers then arrived and overpowered him. When armed-response officers came to unload the weapon, they were shocked to find it was a BB gun, although it looked exactly like an imported Walther pistol. The man was jailed for five years for these offences and in court his personal circumstances of woe were highlighted as a cause of his actions that night.

Soon after the incident, I volunteered for firearms duties, having vowed never again to be put in that position without the means to protect myself. But, once I was able to focus on the incident properly, I changed my mind.

I realised that if I had been armed that day, I would have shot that man to protect myself and members of the public. Had I done so the papers and his family would of course say that all he had had was a harmless BB gun. Would I be able to cope with the fact that I had killed a man; a drunken, depressed, lonely man? I would not have.

Some of the incidents you have quoted in your article were valid shootings by highly trained officers under enormous pressure. Fear of violence is rife, as are replica weapons, and the public expects the police to protect them. And yet police officers who have the responsibility of carrying firearms find themselves the targets of the press.



The shameful 'talking out' of Short's Bill

Sir: On page 41 of 22 October's Independent you quote Chris Grayling on the discussion of Clare Short's Bill on declarations of war. "A thoughtful debate with some very good contributions - the House of Commons at its best". But on page 16 you had already reported on the House at its worst: Geoff Hoon, the Leader of the House, "talking out" the Bill.

I have never yet served on any governing body concerned with educational, political or cultural activities in which members could be prevented from registering a vote on an important issue. Yet we allow our national governing body wilfully to frustrate its own allegedly democratic principles and show its contempt for strongly held public opinions.

The late Robin Cook made commendable progress in reforming a few of our worst Parliamentary traditions. It is infuriating to read of his successor making destructive use of another procedure that is ripe for the scrap heap.



Sir: Tony Blair is opposing Clare Short's proposal to require MPs to vote before committing UK troops to war on the grounds that it would deny British forces the element of surprise.

He seems to have forgotten that "civilised democracies" try to find diplomatic solutions before resorting to violence. The deployment of troops by such a country would never be a surprise because diplomacy would have to be tried first. Even if it were ever necessary, Short's Bill provides the power for the PM to use military force and then seek Parliament's approval afterwards But apparently accountability is too frightening a remedy for Blair. I wonder why.



Sir: The idea of using Parliament to endorse the British nation going to war might have been applicable in the times of Cromwell, but is ridiculous in the modern era.

We cannot see into the future, but the idea of ballistic missiles heading for our nation with an impact time of four minutes makes the assembly of Parliament, time for debate, adjournments, Bills to the upper House, and the usual obstruction tactics a somewhat tight proposition to say the least.



A disabled daughter saved by the NHS

Sir: I read with interest Ian Birrell's article "How a disabled child changed my politics" (20 October) with compassion and deep understanding. I also read it with a rising fury that encouraged me to write a response. I gave birth to my severely disabled daughter one cold February night 26 years ago, a long time ago in the history of attitudes towards disability. My wonderfully brave daughter now lives independently in a community village in Hampshire. Things have changed and improved immensely, although life is not perfect and things can be tough.

However, I challenge Mr Birrell's view of the NHS's "shocking state" and incompetence. The NHS in Southampton and Wessex saved our daughter's life four years ago. After four months in intensive care and 24 brain operations - involving skilled surgeons and multi-disciplinary teams consisting of neurologists and haematologists working together - she survived the protracted and painful procedures. Absolutely nothing was spared. I thank that wonderful team from Wessex Neurosurgical Unit for this gift of life.

Yes, we have long periods waiting in Outpatients, challenges to face with provision and care, but compared to how it was years ago, the services have improved phenomenally. I am immensely proud of our NHS and have witnessed much competence and beautiful stories.

I would like to know how exactly David Cameron plans to "reform our public services"? The fact that he has a disabled child does not mean that his Conservatism will be any different from that of the existing bunch.



Sir: While anyone would have sympathy for Ian Birrell's situation and the life-changing impact of having a disabled child, I can't follow his implied logic that this therefore makes David Cameron the best-placed politician to "reform" the NHS.

I've yet to hear, and think it unlikely that we'll hear, David Cameron advocate increased funding of the NHS in preference to tax cuts to support the obvious improvements that have taken place in recent years.

The reform Ian Birrell wants is the "break up" of the existing service and this is more likely to be the line that Cameron's policy takes. This is, of course, just another way of saying increased privatisation.

The NHS continues to care for a great number of the less advantaged in society. The misfortune of having a disabled child nor a perceived bad experience is not a guarantee that you have the answers to its ills. Although tragic, it's probably Cameron's only experience of "disadvantage". I would just as soon place my confidence in those current (Labour) MPs with public-sector backgrounds, whose breadth of experiences working in this arena means they can reform and support all public bodies and not simply race to privatise them so the better off can cash in once again.



For 24-hour drinking, head to Norfolk

Sir: You state that "about 30 pubs have applied to open round-the-clock" (report, 22 October). This tallies with culture minister James Purnell's statement on 10 October that "little evidence exists of more than a handful of bars and clubs applying for 24-hour licences".

Experience in this part of Norfolk suggests these figures are a huge underestimate. In the towns of Cromer and North Walsham and the parish of East Runton - which have a combined population of some 22,000 people - no fewer than 15 24-hour licences have been granted.

This is half of the "about 30" round-the-clock licences expected for England and Wales (population around 60m). Either this figure is wildly wrong or we in north Norfolk are particularly blessed with 24/7 boozers.



All drug deaths must be counted

Sir: Johann Hari again rightly raises the issue of the legalisation of drugs (20 October). Could he tell us how many young people die unintentionally in this country every year, either as a result of using adulterated heroin which kills them because of its impurities, or because they have used a purer brand than usual, and therefore taken a stronger dose than they realise?

The number of deaths from "accidental overdose", excluding those of young children who raid the medicine cupboard, should be made public for us all to see; likewise the morbidity rates from injecting heroin. I lost three patients from unintentional heroin overdose in my community of 7,000 in the course of two years. Extrapolate that nationally and it might start to look like a national disaster.

Maybe that would wake the politicians to thinking the unthinkable: that by providing controlled, legal outlets of injectables from GP surgeries or other acceptable centres, morbidity and mortality rates would fall, as would drug-related crimes.

An opportunity would also be provided from these outlets to provide the support and education which might help people to consider the ultimate goal of abstinence and allow them to become active citizens again.



Some women prefer to be called ladies

Sir: It's a shame that in an otherwise interesting article Jemima Lewis (Opinion, 21 October) chooses to speculate on my class background. For the record I was born on a working-class council estate where most of my family still live.

She acknowledges that different sections of society prefer to be addressed in different ways. That is my point completely. Putting words like "lady" and "granddad" on a proscribed list limits freedom of expression and removes freedom of choice from people who prefer to be called by those titles. I have no problem in calling a woman a woman if that is what that individual prefers. But I would no more ban the word woman because some ladies find that term offensive.

The more serious aspect of this story that was totally missed by this column is that by putting words like "lady" in the same context as obviously abhorrent racist and homophobic slurs cheapens the impact of those slurs. Rather than addressing the issue of professional behaviour with the seriousness it deserves, the approach adopted by Hull City Council appears more a self-parody than anything else.



What use are ID cards?

Sir: Richard Gibbs (letter, 21 October) is right: crime and terrorism are not affected by ID cards. Other things are. I live in Madrid. My nine-year-old son had to get an ID card (fingerprint and photo) in order to play school basketball (the Spanish federation demands it). A 42-year-old Spanish friend of mine was refused entry to the casino in Benidorm because she forgot her ID card. I have just sent an e-mail to El Mundo (one of the Spanish dailies) and had to leave my residence permit number. My question to all of this is: why?



Overindulgence in God

Sir: The new Bill legislating against Incitement to Religious Hatred should instead be trying to ban Incitement to Religious Extremism. There seems no end to the folly that religion can drive people to, and they can get drunk on religion or nationalism as readily as on wine. The Government should be looking at ways to protect the young from overindulgence - and not just in drink. Jokes about religion help us to see how silly extremism can be.



Flight contradiction

Sir: I am confused, even troubled... readers of The Independent are regularly advised to be aware of, and then still more aware of, the dangers facing our blue planet from, among other things, global warming. We are told that the rise in cheap, more or less frivolous, flights is one of the growth areas and greatest contributors to this problem. So please could you tell me how you justify offering 280 £10 tickets to New York on your front page?



The PM's top secret HQ

Sir: Al Franken states that "on 23 July 2002, Prime Minister Tony Blair met with his top diplomatic, military and intelligence advisers at 10 Downing Street, the secret headquarters of the British Government" ("Neo-conned!", 21 October). It is sobering that neo-cons are not the only Americans who make elementary howlers about the world outside the USA.



Lichen and lungwort

Sir: I read with interest your supplement on Vanishing Britain (17 October). It is true that the lichen Lobaria pulmonaria, also known as Tree Lungwort, is in decline, being restricted largely to the unpolluted ancient woodlands of North West Scotland. However the accompanying picture shows the angiosperm Pulmonaria angustifolia, also known as lungwort, which is a common flowering plant found in many of our gardens.



National pride

Sir: Following the remarkable statement from French politicians that foie gras production is part of French "culture", Carol Burgess (letter, 22 October) says that this cruel activity makes her ashamed to be human. Can I suggest she at least partly assuage her shame with pride in not being French.