Slaying of London constable fuels debate about arming of British police

October 25, 1993|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau

LONDON -- London mourns a slain bobby, and the mourning echoes across the country like a bell tolling for another loss of innocence.

Crack cocaine has come to Great Britain. And Patrick Dunne, a community constable on a bike, cycled unarmed into the middle of what now looks like a crack war.

Constable Dunne, 44, a well-liked policeman who had once been a math teacher, set out Wednesday night to deal with a domestic dispute in Clapham, a South London neighborhood of brick rowhouses, some seedy, some gentrified.

He heard shots and crossed the street to investigate. He was cut down by a single bullet in the heart. A man suspected of being a minor drug dealer was dead in his flat. Seventeen shots had been fired from a 9 mm semi-automatic handgun.

Three men ran away, laughing.

The laughter grated across a raw nerve in Britain. No one talks or writes of Constable Dunne's death without bitter comment on the laughter at the death of a good policeman.

"I believe they laughed because they found what they had done, in some terrible sick way, funny," said John Jones, the detective superintendent leading the inquiry into Constable Dunne's murder.

By yesterday a great bank of flowers had grown up like a memorial bier on the sidewalk on the shabby street called Cato Road where Constable Dunne died.

And a great many people were calling for greater protection of the police, for equipping them with bullet-proof vests, for arming them and for a review of the ban on capital punishment.

Sparked by Constable Dunne's death, the issue of law and disorder, as the Sunday Times put it, was hashed out at length in the Sundaypapers.

The Sunday Telegraph raised the question of the death penalty in a half-page editorial: "It is surely time to consider practically whether the death penalty would reduce . . . crime and restore respect to the law."

But the Telegraph then waffled a bit and said the home secretary should lead "the best minds in public service to turn to the subject."

The Times deplored "the general lawlessness that is increasingly dividing [Britain] into a nation of predators and victims."

It suggested a revision of drug laws, tougher penalties for young offenders, streamlined policing and the more adequate arming of police.

"We do not want to see village cops in the sub-post office with sub-machine guns," the Times said, adding almost quaintly, "If more guns are carried, they should be discreetly concealed."

In fact, the home secretary, Michael Howard, the Cabinet member with responsibility for dealing with crime and punishment, and most law enforcement officials, along with police union officers and what seems to be a majority of the bobbies on the beat, are very cautious about further arming the police.

"The general feeling is that most officers don't want all police to be armed," said Paul Condon, the head of London's Metropolitan Police. Constable Dunne was with the Metropolitan Police.

"But they recognize that as we confront heavier and heavier weapons, then more police must be armed," he said. "My officers will beprotected. We will equip them for the risks that they face. The balance suggests we needn't arm all of them all of the time."

Just 7,000 of the 27,000 policemen in England and Wales are trained in the use of firearms. Special squads are issued guns for specific assignments. But last year in Britain, police used their guns only five times.

A week before Constable Dunne's death, a special Metropolitan Police unit killed an armed robber after a bank holdup, a very rare occurrence in Britain.

The U.S. model of movie-style shootouts between police and robbers both heavily armed with automatic weapons is among the strongest deterrents against the widespread arming of police here.

"Every Briton knows and is horrified by the gun-related violence in America," said the Times.

In all of England and Wales last year, there were 689 homicides compared with 1,094 in Los Angeles.

Constable Dunne's murder has been widely attributed to young drug dealers, called "Yardies," who are fighting turf battles over the rising trade in crack. Yardies, whose name derives from the "backyard" gangs of Kingston, Jamaica, are the British equivalent of the United States's Jamaican "posses." In fact, sometimes they may be the same people. British police believe that a hard core floats among London, Miami, New York and Kingston.

U.S. drug agents warned British police two years ago that the crack epidemic would soon spread to Britain. And police and reporters do speak of a dramatic rise.

But the trade here remains small compared to that in the United States. Drug agents seized only 4.2 kilograms (about 9 pounds) of crack in London last year.

Not a big market in U.S. terms, but big enough it seems to have cost a London policeman his life.

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