- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 6, 2000

LONDON From deep inside Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire, a revolution in British policing has begun. But its leaders deny it is any such thing.

"There is nothing exceptional in what we're doing," said Assistant Chief Constable Sean Price. "This is not a Genghis Khan approach. We're only doing what the police have always done deploying the level of force appropriate to the threat."

Constable Price is masterminding "Operation Real Estate," at the heart of which is a strategy that, so far, every other police force in Britain has balked at putting armed officers on the beat.

The decision was made in February, when rival gangs in a turf war had a shootout that left several people injured. Local residents knew what was going on, but were too frightened to get involved.

"I knew at the time this was the thin end of the wedge," said Constable Price. "If we hadn't got a grip quickly, it would have got out of control."

Six officers, operating in pairs and armed with Walther P990 pistols, were deployed in two local housing projects and have been there since. Supported by two "armed-response vehicles" (ARVs), in which submachine guns are kept, they help unarmed officers to work the beat from dusk until the middle of the night.

Armed policing is not new in Britain. It's a part of daily life in Northern Ireland, and people are used to seeing armed officers at airports, London checkpoints and siege incidents.

But since Nottinghamshire police put armed officers on the beat, forces around the country have been watching closely. And officers and community leaders in Nottinghamshire admit there's no going back. And the precedent it sets for the rest of the country is not lost on the local population.

"This is a watershed," said Delroy Brown, a community leader at the African-Caribbean national artistic center in St. Ann's.

The district is racially mixed, but most of the recent violence has involved black youths. Mr. Brown doesn't dispute the need to do something, but wonders whether the police have thought through the race-relations implications of their actions.

"This marks the paramilitarization of the police," he said. "If they are armed, within five years you will see a disproportionate number of black youths being killed by mainly white officers."

Sensitive to such fears, the police insist the decision was taken only after considerable consultation with local officials and residents. Constable Price is adamant that the community is united across all ethnic groups white, black and Asian in supporting the move.

According to Inspector David Powell, chief inspector of operations, the use of guns is only part of a broader strategy of combating drug-dealing and other crimes.

"We're trying to give communities the confidence to stand up against violent behavior," Inspector Powell said.

Each Friday, Constable Price and his team make a progress report, partly on the basis of intelligence gleaned from the community. For the past few weeks, he has concluded that the threat of violence has receded, and he has ordered his men to leave their weapons in the ARVs. But this, he makes clear, can change week by week.

Crime rates are down, and criticism is muted. Since the operation began, there have been only a handful of shooting incidents. More than 150 arrests have been made, and a number of trials are about to begin. About 15 guns have been recovered.

Criminologist Karim Murji believes British policing is at a crossroads. "This debate about guns is part of the mythology of British policing," he said. "We are in fact much further down the line than most people realize. The experience of the last two decades shows that it's impossible to roll back on arming levels once they have been established."

Intriguingly, there are now fewer police in Britain being given firearms training than there were in the 1980s. The number of officers authorized to carry guns has declined from 13,000 in 1983 to 6,300 in 1998. However, the number of armed operations has grown steadily, mirroring the growth in the criminal use of guns.

• Distributed by Scripps Howard.

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