London's famed bobbies to begin wearing pistols

May 17, 1994|By New York Times News Service

LONDON -- Scotland Yard rewrote yesterday the rules that have traditionally barred London's bobbies from openly carrying guns, and for the first time will send a few dozen specially trained police officers into the streets this summer, wearing sidearms in hip holsters.

The change in policy -- provoked by a growing number of violent assaults on police officers -- will go unnoticed by the public. All but a handful of London's uniformed bobbies will continue to walk their beats and ride patrols cars without weapons, as they have done since the capital's police force was established more than a century ago.

But while the new policy affects, in practice, only a few patrol officers, police officials said it had a much larger symbolic importance, as one more step toward providing police officers with the kinds of weapons they need to defend themselves.

"I think we all value the traditional image of the British bobby," Paul Condon, the superintendent of the Metropolitan Police Department of London, said at a news conference yesterday. "But wehave to police the real world, and the equipment and training must have some link with the real world."

After two officers were killed in recent months, two others shot and several stabbed, Mr. Condon said: "I am not prepared to ask them to carry out their job without better protection."

In addition to allowing a handful of officers to wear guns, Mr. Condon also authorized police to routinely carry 22-inch-long nylon truncheons, compared to the 12- and 14-inch-long wooden batons that are now standard issue.

He also said that London police would test for the first time the use of pepper gas sprays, as a way "to disorient" violent subjects, and would conduct field trials on the feasibility of routinely equipping all beat officers with bullet- and stab-resistant vests.

While a British officer is much less likely to be killed on duty than an American officer, the risk of assault is comparable to the United States, where the FBI says about 18 percent of officers are assaulted each year.

The new gun policy involving the carrying of weapons applies only to what are described as "armed response vehicles." There are five such cars on patrol in London at any one time; Mr. Condon said yesterday that he would increase the number of these patrols to 12 by the summer.

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