Armed police officers are to patrol the streets of London for the first time in an attempt to tackle a rise in gang-related gun crime.
Traditionally officers from the Metropolitan Police's specialist firearms unit – codenamed CO19 – have been deployed on the streets only when a response to incidents of gun crime is necessary or to protect VIPs.
The new initiative, announced yesterday, will see CO19 officers patrolling the capital's most dangerous streets and housing estates alongside neighbourhood officers. It has been described as a "proactive" response to the 17 per cent increase in gun crime over the past six months.
But it was immediately denounced by members of the Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA), the body which governs the actions of Scotland Yard, which was apparently not consulted on the controversial decision. One MPA member described the move as "totally unacceptable" while another called for an emergency meeting.
Joanne McCartney said: "We want fewer guns on the streets not more, and people to feel safe in their community – not scared of those who are supposed to protect them.
"There has been no debate, no consultation and apparently no consideration to the strong opposition that exists to arming the police. This is more than just an operational decision and should be brought before the police authority as a matter of urgency."
Jenny Jones, another MPA member, added: "This is a totally unacceptable departure from normal policing tactics. I can't believe that the sight of a policeman with a machine gun will make people feel safer.
"Are we heading down a slippery slope towards armed rather than community policing? I hope the Met will rethink this terrible decision immediately and think of a genuinely proactive way to prevent gun crime."
Pilot patrols have already begun in Brixton as well as Haringey and Tottenham, where three Turkish men were shot dead earlier this month in an apparent war between rival heroin gangs.
It is the first time the Metropolitan Police has deployed armed officers for routine patrols outside of protected sites such as Parliament and Royal homes. However a similar project did run in Nottinghamshire in 2000 in an attempt to address the issue of drive-by shootings that afflicted the city.
Yet the fact that Britain's police officers, unlike their American counterparts, remain predominately unarmed is a source of continuing pride to traditionalists who believe that officers should police through consent rather than force.
But Inspector Derek Carroll, who leads the armed unit, said officers have received positive feedback from residents.
He said: "Historically, CO19 was only called out when someone rang up to report a gun crime. But a lot of streets in London have young people in postcode gangs, aged 14 and upwards, and a lot of communities feel that they are controlling areas of estates. We are looking at gangs that have access to firearms and will be robust in dealing with them."