Armed Police Presence New to London Streets
SCOTT SIMON, host:
Armed police officers convey a new presence on the streets of London that reflect the heightened security in that city since the bombings. The sight of bobbies with guns along with the mistaken fatal shooting of a Brazilian man last week has sparked debate about the changing role of Britain's police force. NPR's Rachel Martin reports from London.
RACHEL MARTIN reporting:
There's a somewhat romantic image of the traditional British police officer, the bobby on the beat, as they're called, gentile men and women who patrol the streets with nothing more than a baton and a radio on their belt, quick to help an elderly woman across the street and happy to give directions to tourists.
Unidentified Woman #1: Can you tell me where the National Portrait Gallery is?
Unidentified Woman #2: Yes, certainly. You go out onto the main road, which is Train Cross Road(ph)...
Unidentified Woman #1: OK.
Unidentified Woman #2: ...and turn right.
Unidentified Woman #1: Yes.
MARTIN: The British police force was established to be non-threatening. There was such public distrust of the state in the 1800s when the force was created that it was designed to look as non-militarized as possible, and that meant keeping officers unarmed, says Tim Newburtin(ph), professor of criminology and social justice at the London School of Economics.
Mr. TIM NEWBURTIN (Professor, London School of Economics): You still, in the UK, still hold onto the idea that it's important to have, as it were, these citizens in uniform rather than armed law enforcement officers patrolling our streets, though I think that's beginning to change.
MARTIN: Londoners have seen an increase in the number of police officers carrying guns since the bombing attacks. According to the Metropolitan Police, about 10 percent of the city's 31,000 police officers are authorized to carry weapons, and about 400 of them are armed on a regular basis. Security experts say since the London attacks, more officers who are authorized to carry guns are doing so, but many Londoners like 34-year-old Dorothy Henley(ph) say putting more armed police on the street makes them feel less safe.
Ms. DOROTHY HENLEY (Londoner): It makes me afraid when I see police walking around with guns. I'd like to see a good police presence, a good police response to whatever's going on, but not guns.
MARTIN: London police have had a shoot-to-kill policy in place for the past year when dealing with suspected suicide bombers, but it was only revealed after the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian electrician mistakenly shot by police. Twenty-one-year-old Sanjay Mahi(ph) says now armed officers make him feel not secure but vulnerable.
Mr. SANJAY MAHI: They could just shoot one of us, though, me and my mate. We're both Asian. We could be walking out and they could just shoot us just for the reason maybe I've got a little bit of a beard or I've got the Asian-colored skin. And what can you do about that?
MARTIN: British civil rights groups say this kind of anxiety could be eased if there was more transparency about which officers carry guns, how they're trained and when they're authorized to use them. Shami Chakrabarti is the director of the British civil rights group Liberty. She says the shooting of the Brazilian man is a tragic wake-up call about the need for stricter standards in arming police officers.
Ms. SHAMI CHAKRABARTI (Liberty): It's only at a moment of tragedy that the call for such scrutiny comes up. And because of the tragic shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes last week in London, I think we're about to grow up as a nation living with armed police officers and perhaps a need for armed police officers and have that debate and scrutiny from now on.
MARTIN: Roy Ramm, the former commander of special operations at Scotland Yard, says the public should question the numbers of armed police officers and when they should use their weapons, but Ramm says the police and the British government have yet to explain to the public that there is a new threat that must be addressed with new force.
Mr. ROY RAMM (Former Commander of Special Operations, Scotland Yard): How can we better convey that--convey to them why we need to have more armed officers, why they're going to see policemen with firearms, because it is alien to British culture, but it is now essential to preserve that culture. The police force cannot protect society with a 14-inch stick.
MARTIN: The arming of police officers and how they use their weapons are among the subjects being investigated by an independent commission looking into the shooting of the Brazilian man. The results of that investigation are expected to be released in the coming months.
Rachel Martin, NPR News, London.