By David Stringer
LONDON — Wielding submachine guns and pistols, British police are making rare armed patrols in crime-blighted London neighborhoods — a change in law enforcement tactics that may prompt calls for the wider use of weapons by the country's traditionally unarmed Bobbies.
London's police department said Friday that a new armed unit is carrying out regular sweeps of districts riven by gun battles between rival drug gangs.
Unlike typical police procedure, the team of about 20 officers actively seeks out criminals carrying or storing guns — rather than waiting to respond to emergency calls about incidents involving weapons.
Chief Inspector Neil Sharman said the unit began work in June to tackle pockets of rising gun crime, and will double in size from November amid concerns over the increasing use of weapons in Britain's capital.
In contrast to the United States and many European nations, British police have never routinely carried firearms on patrol, with only a limited number of specialist officers trained to use guns. Britain's Home Office said being unarmed is part of the "character of the police" in the U.K.
"In the past the police were authority figures dealing primarily with people who respected the police. However, as terrorism and crime increases in the U.K. the traditional icon of the Bobby on the beat is becoming incapable of dealing with terrorists and violent crime," said Bob Ayers, a London-based former U.S. intelligence officer.
The British public has traditionally been resistant to the routine arming of police — a skepticism heightened by the 2005 shooting death of an innocent Brazilian electrician, mistaken by police marksmen for a suicide bomber.
Yet, some argue Britain is now naive to believe that police can tackle rising levels of gun crime without weapons of their own.
"Every single police officer should have a gun," said Daniel Dixon, a 25-year-old engineer from central London. "Criminals might be carrying weapons, and the police officer is endangering himself by not having one."
In the 12 months to September, London saw a 17 percent rise in gun offenses, up from 1,484 to 1,737. According to government figures for England and Wales, there are about 50 to 60 shooting deaths in the country each year.
Scotland Yard said the new armed patrols are taking place in Brixton, a south London district with a reputation as a drug dealing hotspot, and an area of north London dogged by a turf battle between rival Turkish drug gangs.
The sweeps are being carried out about once a week by officers already attached to the specialist firearms unit. Some see the tactic as evidence the Britain may slowly be rethinking its policy on armed police. "Since 9/11 they've become much more aware of the fact that it is a violent world out there," said Ayers.
Jenny Jones, a legislator at London's City Hall and member of the oversight committee for London police, said the change in tactics is unacceptable. "I can't believe that the sight of a policeman with a machine gun will make people feel safer," she said.
London Mayor Boris Johnson's office said "armed police have a role in certain circumstances, but that should be the exception not the norm."
Dolapo Akinmade, a 35-year old accountant from Welwyn Garden City, a town just north of London, said the fact the British public rarely carry firearms means police don't need weapons. "I think society is better off without guns. If every policeman had a gun it would create a tense atmosphere," he said.
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"It's a question of is it necessary, and the general feeling is that it's not," said Roy Ingleton, author of "Arming the British Police: The Great Debate."