FOR more than a century and a half, the helmeted ``bobby'' has been a reassuring presence on the streets of Britain.
The police force created by the 19th-century statesman Sir Robert Peel had a firm hand with lawbreakers, and constables were ready to damp down neighborhood quarrels, warn high-spirited children about throwing stones, and help old ladies cross the street. For protection, the bobby needed only the respect of the community he served, a smile, and a spindly nightstick in his belt in case friendly persuasion failed.
All that is about to change.
Paul Condon, London's police commissioner, has decided that for the first time officers on patrol in the British capital will carry guns.
Senior law-enforcement officers say the move will likely lead to the arming of all British police.
The heads of forces outside London, including those of Manchester, Liverpool, and Glasgow, reportedly are considering taking Mr. Condon's lead as a way of boosting police morale amid rising crime. They express concern about a sharp increase in the number of guns and other lethal weapons in the inner cities.
At present, only 11,000 of Britain's 36,000 police are trained to use firearms. Senior officers regard Condon's May 17 decision as a potential historic turning point, though few top-ranking police are enthusiastic about routinely arming the men and women on the beat. Condon ordered that a dozen armed response vehicles (ARVs) will patrol London round-the-clock. They will be crewed by highly trained marksmen authorized to use handguns without special permission.