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Armed Airport Police Alter Image of the British Bobby

January 9, 1986

LONDON (AP) _ Police armed with submachine guns went on patrol against terrorists at Heathrow Airport Thursday, drawing praise from passengers along with laments for the passing of the image of the benign and unarmed British bobby.

Officials explained in almost apologetic tones that the deployment of Scotland Yard’s elite D11 unit at Heathrow was prompted by the terrorist attacks Dec. 27 on Rome and Vienna airports.

Heathrow passengers said it was sad but necessary. “I don’t agree with the police being armed, but the way things are in the world it’s the only thing they can do,” said John Main, a Briton.

“It certainly spoils the image of the British bobby and it’s getting more and more like America,” he said, watching the policemen armed with 9mm Heckler and Koch submachine guns patrol the check-in area of Heathrow’s intercontinental flights terminal.

Britain has long prided itself on its mostly unarmed police force and the strict rules governing the issuing of weapons to detectives on dangerous operations.

But the image has been tarnished in recent years. Civil libertarians claim police are increasingly using guns, sometimes ineptly.

By coincidence, the announcement of armed guards at Heathrow came on the day police announced they would bring manslaughter charges against an officer whose gun discharged during a raid on a robbery suspect’s home, killing a 5- year-old boy.

But a few months earlier, a detective on a stakeout was stabbed to death, and critics said a gun could have saved him. Both cases stirred widespread debate about whether to arm the police.

A survey of social trends published Thursday reported that firearms offenses had quadrupled since 1972 to 8,376 in 1984.

“Of course it is a matter to be deplored,” said Aviation Minister Michael Spicer, who was on hand as the first armed policeman, Sgt. David Chambers, appeared. “But terminal security is a matter of great importance,“he added.

The Police Federation, an association representing police officers throughout Britain, opposed the measure.

“It means people arriving in this country, who have always believed that the British have an unarmed police force, are going to be confronted with people wearing normal police uniforms but with submachine guns slung across their shoulders,” said federation spokesman Tony Judge.

Clive Soley, an opposition Labor Party lawmaker, said: “The carrying of arms by the police is escalating almost every day. We are well on the way to having an almost permanently armed police force.

Heathrow’s police chief, Commander Patrick Carson, said the police would only fire single shots at attackers. “We will not stand there and spray bullets around.”

Police declined to say how many armed officers were deployed. They said until now detectives have patrolled the airport with concealed weapons.

Heathrow was the first British airport to be guarded by visibly armed policemen, and it was not known whether other cities would follow suit.

Michael Yardley, a defense expert, said the measure “plays into the terrorists’ hands” and would endanger passengers. He said the West German- made gun’s high-velocity bullets could pierce a terrorist’s body and harm passengers.

Passenger Anne Ladof, 32, an attorney from York, Pa., said: “I hate to see it happen, but I realize that security precautions are necessary because people didn’t used to open fire on children at airports.

“I lived in Israel for a while where everyone carried a machine gun, so I got used to it,” she said. “But I think it encourages people to use them, perhaps unnecessarily, and I think it would be more sensible to have the people carrying the guns far less conspicuous.”

Jay Edelman, 27, Brentwood, Md., said: “It sort of destroyed the image of the British policeman not being armed. But in view of the recent attacks I think it’s a good idea. British police have been fortunate up until now in not having to carry guns, whereas in America they carry them everywhere.

The Rome and Vienna attacks were aimed at an El Al Israeli Airlines check- in counter and departure lounge; but in Rome, the terrorists fired their guns and threw grenades indiscriminately, killing and wounding people checking in at Pan American and TWA, which were nearby.

On Thursday, one armed policeman stood in a corridor keeping a close watch on passengers arriving on an El Al flight. Two more patrolled the El Al check-in desk while others kept watch on the departure lounge.

Israel Mordkovich, a businessman from Tel Aviv, said: “I feel a lot safer knowing they’ve got them. In the light of what is happening I’m all for it. The safety of passengers is what matters. I’m used to seeing machine guns in Israel and Germany and other countries, but it’s very strange seeing them here.”

British businessman Colin Chantry said on arrival from Tel Aviv: “I find it very reassuring. You can’t take any chances when you see things that happen like in Rome and Vienna. Giving the airport police machine guns is a good idea because what good would a truncheon be during a terrorist attack?

“I don’t think there is any danger of innocent bystanders being hurt in a possible shootout. We’ve probably got one of the most restrained police forces in the world and they would only use the guns if they had to.”

An Israeli woman passenger who refused to give her name said: “It’s good to know that the police have got the weapons to fight back if a terrorist group tries to massacre innocent people at the airport.”

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