THE number of women applying to become police constables has fallen so far this year by more than 30 per cent. Police figures show 2,124 women applied to join as constables between January and September, compared with 3,084 for the corresponding period last year. This decrease - and an overall 10 per cent drop in applications throughout the force - has been blamed on uncertainty over the change of sovereignty and the arming of women officers. Community debate over equal opportunity legislation and sexual discrimination is also considered to be fuelling the drop in numbers. For the past year, the force has been examining ways to broaden the operational profile of women. These include attachments to tactical units and other areas from which females were previously barred. But management has not yet been able to grapple with the logistics, planning and cultural problems of equipping women officers with weapons. It is widely expected the chiefs of staff - the top police policy-making body - will decide on the arming issue, and other female work-related topics, before the end of the year. Last week, a new uniform for women officers was unveiled. It is capable of taking a heavier belt suitable for carrying a weapon. It is known many police officers favour allowing women a small gun. In July, Commissioner Eddie Hui Ki-on noted the decline in women applicants and hinted it might be linked to the firearm issue. After his statement, Deputy Commissioner Peter So Lai-yin, who commands the management portfolio, said it was possible only women who agreed to carry firearms would be recruited. The drop in male applicants in the junior ranks so far this year has been negligible - down 137 from last year's figure of 4,518. In contrast, applications in the first nine months of the year for inspectorate posts were up by 22 per cent, reflecting better pay and housing benefits for senior ranks. Overall, 867 fewer people have applied this year to join the police force. Chief Superintendent Ng Wai-kit, from the Personnel Management Branch, said the force was keeping a close watch on figures, but was not panicking about the downturn. Mr Ng said police were aware of the Government's manpower report - which tipped a shortfall of about 50,000 secondary school graduates by 2001 - and its implications for policing. It is believed that, despite the decline in applicants, the force will press ahead with plans to boost the proportion of women officers - running at about 12 per cent of the force - because of fears potential male recruit numbers will slip further in the coming years. In addition, women recruits generally have a much higher standard of education than their male counterparts.