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.

Carl De Souza/AFP/FILE
Stunner: Britain's expansion of Taser use faces a mixed reception from a largely unarmed force.
Mary Knox Merrill/The Christian Science Monitor/File
British Police officers, seen here walking down Regent Street near Piccadilly Circus in London, until now have been armed with only pepper spray and a nightstick.

They're one of Britain's best known icons: helmeted bobbies, or policemen, who make their rounds on a bicycle or on foot, armed only with pepper spray and a nightstick.

But more bobbies may soon carry something more threatening. As police face greater dangers on the job, the government is extending the use of Taser stun guns beyond specialist units to tens of thousands of front-line officers. It's a move that faces resistance from lawmakers, advocacy groups, and even some bobbies – and could change forever the face of one of the world's only largely unarmed police forces.

The debate over the 50,000-volt stun guns – designed to shoot wired darts that temporarily disable suspects – has intensified this week amid two high-profile cases alleging excessive use of force.

"We are still predominantly unarmed," says Paul Davis, a spokesperson for the federation and a 25-year police veteran.

But, he adds, "if you look at the changing face of society, it would appear that more people are willing to challenge authority figures than they once were."

Tasers, he says, enable police to respect the "right to life" in situations where firearms might otherwise by used.

But opposition has grown amid charges that officers may not be properly trained and that the weapons can be used too frequently – and result in death.

In the US, for example, two-thirds of police departments are equipped with electroshock weapons. According to Amnesty International, the guns have played a role in more than 320 deaths in the US and Canada in the past decade. Most wrongful-death lawsuits involving them have ended up favoring police. Canadian authorities, however, are reexamining the weapons after a recent report suggests the jolt might be excessive.

Arms-free tradition

Arms-free policing has been a tradition in Britain since Scotland Yard's founding in 1829. "The UK has always prided itself on its approach to 'policing by consent,' rather than 'compliance by pain,' " says Oliver Sprague, Amnesty International UK's arms program director.

When it comes to firearms, most of the rank and file resist carrying them, according to their union, the Police Federation, which found in 2006 that 82 percent of members do not want to routinely carry guns. Only a highly trained fraction of police may carry firearms.

But some 37 British police officers have been killed in the line of duty in the past two decades in England, Wales, and Scotland. The most recent death was of an officer who was fatally stabbed in June 2007, prompting one populist British tabloid, The Daily Express, to crusade for a change of policy with the front page headline: "Now Arm All Our Police."

The calls were supported by some relatives of slain police officers, but have not been taken up by Parliament.

The debate over wide use of stun guns, however, is taking place at a time of shaken public confidence in armed policing.

On Tuesday, two senior police officers faced a disciplinary hearing over the use of a stun gun in 2005 against an unresponsive man riding a bus in the English city of Leeds. The incident happened less than a week after a series of suicide bomb attacks in London. The rider, Nicholas Gaubert, was clutching a rucksack when he fell unconscious – and police, on high alert, Tasered him after he failed to respond to questions. Mr. Gaubert says the experience left him suffering severe post-traumatic stress.

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.

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."

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