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Britain abuzz over a new plan to arm bobbies with Tasers

Expansion of stun-gun use faces a mixed reaction from the largely unarmed police service.

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Also this week, a jury verdict is being awaited in the inquest into a fatal police shooting of an innocent Brazilian immigrant on a London Underground train shortly after the July 7, 2005, terrorist attacks. Police say they mistook Jean Charles de Menezes for a suicide bomber.

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Front-line police officers in the United Kingdom routinely carry guns only in Northern Ireland, where they face a lingering, though much reduced, threat from IRA splinter groups. In Europe, the only other countries where police officers are predominantly unarmed are Norway, Iceland, and the Republic of Ireland.

Firearms are carried by many officers in Europe, where a tradition of often heavily armed paramilitary police forces exists in countries such as France (the National Gendarmerie) and Italy (the Carabinieri). In Greece, the use of lethal force by police last weekend led to rioting in several cities after a teenager was shot dead.

So far, the biggest obstacle to the government stun-gun expansion plans has been a refusal by London's Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA) to join in. The MPA said extending Tasers to front-line officers had the potential to "cause fear and damage public confidence."

Mr. Sprague, with Amnesty International, warned that widespread and routine deployments of Taser stun guns could lead to the weapons being misused. Widespread deployment of the weapon in Britain could cause the country to lose its reputation for having a relatively gentle police service, Sprague says.

"It's fair to say that the UK police force sets the standard when it comes to policing around the world," he says.

Streets getting tougher

On a frosty afternoon this month, the risks taken on a daily basis by Britain's army of bobbies, becomes clear midway through a patrol by Sgt. Mark Fenton and two colleagues of their beat in the district of Hackney, East London, which has some of the highest gang violence in the city.

Something, they note, isn't quite right about a car parked on a quiet side street with two young men inside. After a chat, and running their names through a computer, up flashes a warning that one has a conviction for firearms offenses.

Taking care to keep the men talking inside their car, the three unarmed officers quietly radio for backup, and only carry out a thorough search when help arrives. Although nothing incriminating turns up, the incident underlines the potential stakes in a confrontation between gun-wielding criminals and policemen armed and protected with batons, pepper spray and "stabproof" vests.

After he and his colleagues finish their search of the car, Police Constable Alex Henshaw explains that, even here, "policing by consent" is the guiding principle.

"You cannot operate without it. Otherwise you would get into confrontation after confrontation," he says.

"If people don't feel detached or frightened of you, then they are more likely to contact you, and intelligence is one of the most important resources we have."