London (CNSNews.com) - In what would be a significant shift from current policy, a former U.K. cabinet minister has called for British police officers to routinely carry firearms on patrol.
The government and the country's largest police union oppose the move.
On a weekend radio show, Tony Banks said armed policing "works in other countries."
"It has also become quite commonplace to see armed police at our airports," he said. "I believe that we should have the arming of the police in the capital city and indeed around the rest of the country."
Banks, who represents an east London district in Parliament but no longer holds a cabinet post, said that authorities have been too tolerant of armed criminals and that the majority of Britons want armed officers regularly patroling the streets.
He said arming police officers was just one plank in his platform to combat crime and that he also advocates 10,000 new police officers in London, community watch programs, and compulsory community service for teenagers.
But the organization that represents rank-and-file police officers in England took issue with the former Labor minister's comments.
The Police Federation is opposed to regularly arming British "bobbies."
"We don't believe that that would be beneficial," a Police Federation spokeswoman said Tuesday. "We have a tradition of unarmed British policing and the public would take a lot of persuading to change that tradition."
About 80 percent of officers said they were not in favor of being routinely armed, according to a Police Federation survey carried out several years ago.
The government agency responsible for law enforcement in Britain said there were no plans to implement Banks' suggestion.
"In an individual situation a chief officer will make a decision if the officer should carry guns," the Home Office said in a statement. "But that is obviously very different to the routine arming of the police, which is something that ... government have in no way encouraged."
Decisions on whether or not to carry guns are made at the local level in Britain. Regular patrol officers are usually armed only with a club, but most local forces have special armed response units that can be used in hostage or other situations where guns are called for.
A recent rise in gun crime has prompted several police forces to arm their officers more frequently. Last week, officers in Greater Manchester, Britain's second-largest police force, started armed patrols in some areas.
Police were worried about an increase in firearm-related crime and four incidents where unarmed officers were threatened at gunpoint.
"The level of firearms incidents particularly in areas of south Manchester has reached an intolerable level," Assistant Chief Constable Alan Green said at the time.
A Greater Manchester Police spokeswoman said Tuesday that the armed patrols had increased the number of police on the streets in some inner-city areas and had boosted police confidence.
"People seem to think we've just given guns to patrol officers, but we have specially trained armed patrol officers who are going out with the unarmed officers," the spokeswoman said. "We've increased the number of police on the streets.
"Police officers are human beings, and going to work every day with the prospect of being threatened with a gun is not the most inspiring proposition," she said. "The armed patrols are for them as much as anyone else."
The spokeswoman said the patrols had also boosted public confidence in police, though it was too early to tell if they had any effect on crime levels.
Police in the city had also conducted armed anti-terrorist patrols for several weeks last December.
E-mail a news tip to Mike Wendling.
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