London — The British public is learning what can happen when policemen are given guns. Debate on arming the police has heated up here in the last few weeks after a case of mistaken identity.
Police hunting a killer thought they saw him driving a minicar in heavy traffic in London's West End. They drew guns and fired 14 shots, mostly at the driver. Later, out of ammunition, one policeman clubbed the suspect with a pistol.
Only later did the officers realize they had the wrong man. Two of the detectives were charged with attempted murder but, in a noteworthy court case, a jury dismissed the charges.
Now the victim is claiming compensation and there is widespread discussion on two themes: how the police could make such an appalling error; and how firearm guidelines can be redrawn to prevent possible wanton use of guns by police.
To people in North America, and even in some West European countries, the alarm created by the mistaken police attack on Stephen Waldorf may seem exaggerated. But in Britain there is a long tradition of minimal police violence and deep suspicion of use of firearms by law enforcement officers.
Until about a decade ago it was exceptional to hear of police being issued guns. The unarmed bobby on the beat remained a reassuring figure and seemed to gain in authority through not carrying a weapon.
Then crimes of violence, including terrorism, began to increase and selected officers were given training in firearms, which were issued only when it was believed a policeman might be dealing with an armed criminal.
Last year in Britain, according to official figures, there were only 4,000 cases of police being issued guns. Throughout the country only one officer in 10 receives training in the use of firearms. In London the figure is one in six.
In the Waldorf case, police did not observe the regulation by which they should shout, ''Stop, police.'' In press comment after the court case, alarm has been voiced at the decision to draw and use guns in a busy shopping street.
In defense, the two accused detectives argued that Waldorf looked remarkably like their true quarry. Also Waldorf was in his car with a woman known to be a friend of the hunted killer.
These circumstances, however, are already being seen as separate from the larger issues raised by the case.
There are doubts whether existing police training in the use of guns is adequate. At present an officer has five days of instruction on handguns. Police admit that may not be enough.
A former Home Office minister, Lord Harris of Greenwich, has pointed to another worrying aspect: government failure to restrict the use of shotguns, currently a favorite weapon of criminals.
Harris argues that if there were tougher regulations on guns in the hands of citizens, there would be less need for police to use weapons themselves.
Senior police officers emphasize that, although the two detectives were acquitted, the Waldorf case and its implications have sent a shockwave through the force.
A major internal review of the use of firearms is already under way. The two freed detectives are likely to be reprimanded severely by their superiors.
And with Parliament reassembling, it is certain that the cases for and against giving guns to bobbies will be fiercely debated.