A finger on the trigger

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 May, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 May, 1994, 12:00am

SUPERINTENDENT Charles Wong, the Hong Kong exchange police officer who caused such a positive stir earlier this year by cleaning up a drug-ridden UK housing estate, admitted there was one huge difference between British and Hong Kong policing tactics - firearms.

He felt much less confident without his pistol at his side at first here but when it came to an incident involving firearms, he believed there were many benefits to the British tactic of sending in specialist teams of marksmen rather than having every street cop potentially capable of firing his weapon at a time of real crisis.

The horror of this week's Landmark shooting demonstrates of course that Hong Kong police exercise the greatest control when there is a danger to the public and there were undoubtedly senior officers in Britain who read the details of the incident with studied care.

Nonetheless the day before the Landmark incident the British Government decided to move further down the road towards a fully-armed police force. The days of Dixon of Dock Green looked even further distant.

The drawback if you have a limited number of armed police is that it takes a long time to get them to the scene of a crime.

This week's decision does not mean that every officer will be armed, only that the number of armed teams is being stepped up and - critically - they will not need to receive the authority of a senior officer before using their weapons.

Additionally they will be equipped with longer batons than now - more like the American side-handled night stick, body armour where necessary and a ''pepper spray'' - rather like squirting hot chilli into the face of the assailant.

Surprisingly what the decision has demonstrated is that far from what one might expect, the public actually is more in favour of its lawmen being armed than the police are.

The polls found that 67 per cent of the public back the wider use of guns by the police - a higher figure than the police themselves.

The police had complained of increasingly being targets of violent crime and this week's moves follow a series of alarming murders of police officers.

One local south London police officer was gunned down in cold blood by suspected drug dealers.

PC Patrick Dunne had been dealing with a routine domestic disturbance when he heard shots from another house in the same street. He went to the door to investigate and saw three men running into the street.

They saw his uniform, opened fire and ran away laughing. He was just one of three officers shot on the streets of London in the past year.

The police complained that armed only with a short truncheon they were getting the rough end of it. There were 18,000 assaults on British police officers last year, the equivalent to more than one in every eight officers serving.

It is not just city crime either, the rise in assaults on police officers in erstwhile peaceful shire counties has been amazing.

Nonetheless, the routine arming of the police has always been a subject on which views are divided. Most officers did not join the police to carry guns - and arguably the force would attract a different kind of individual if all carried weapons. THE big fear within the police against arming officers is the potential for accidents and bad judgment losing the force credibility with a public with whom co-operation is not always of the best anyway.

There is also the risk of police being overpowered and having their weapons stolen. It raises the stakes on all sides of the equation.

Nobody doubts that this week's measures are anything other than an interim step towards the routine arming of the police. But there is a huge public fear that it will lead to a fiercer armed response from criminals and to a yet more violent society.

Some former Scotland Yard commanders are warning that unless real thought is given London could end up with Los Angeles-style policing just reacting to violence and becoming alienated from the public they serve.

The guiding principle must continue to be that firearms are still a last resort here and that an unarmed police force remains the norm.