by David Granville
DISTURBING EVIDENCE has emerged that all but one of Britain’s 46 police forces-- including three non-Home Office forces -- have taken delivery of the new lethal plastic baton round introduced into the six counties amid controversy last year.
Equally disturbing is the recent confirmation by a Home Office official that it has been issued for use both in “public disorder” situations and as a “less lethal option” to standard firearms.
Human-rights campaigners in Britain and Ireland have warned that far from being safer, scientific evidence suggests that the new ‘improved’ baton round -- L21A1 -- is potentially even more dangerous than its predecessor.
Plastic bullets and baton rounds have claimed the lives of 17 people in the six counties, seven of them schoolchildren. A wide range of human- and civil-rights organisations, including two United Nations’ committees, have called for the weapon to be banned.
Information about the introduction of the new baton round throughout Britain has seeped out in recent months as a result of questions tabled in the Westminster parliament, and the weapon’s use in incidents in Surrey and north Wales earlier this year.
Neither incident involved public disorder. However, while no police force has admitted that it intends to use the weapon in such situations, campaigners believe that it is now only a matter of time before they are, with potentially deadly consequences.
Responding to a recent letter from the Sheffield and South Yorkshire branch of the Connolly Association expressing concern about the introduction of the weapon locally, Simon Walls of the Home Office’s Policing and Crime Reduction Group admitted that an unspecified number of police forces had baton rounds “for use in public disorder and as a less lethal option”.
The use of plastic baton rounds throughout Britain was formally approved by former home secretary Jack Straw in June 2001 at the time the modified weapon was introduced into the six counties.
Responding on 22 January to a parliamentary question tabled by Lord Lester of Herne Hill, Home Office minister Lord Rooker revealed that 45 out of 46 police forces in England and Wales -- including three non-Home Office specialist forces, covering royal parks, transport and atomic energy -- would be equipped with baton guns by April 2002.
In April this year Grampian police confirmed that the force had become the first in Scotland to equip some of its officers with the weapon. As yet it is unclear exactly how many of Scotland’s remaining seven police forces already have, or are planning to acquire, the weapon.
An attempt towards the end of last year by Kevin McNamara MP to find out exactly which British forces had acquired baton rounds was rebuffed by ministers.
“I have accepted the advice of the Association of Chief Police Officers that the disclosure of this information, on an individual force basis, would be prejudicial to operational effectiveness”, said Home Office minister John Denham.
However, Denham went on to confirm that 23,090 baton rounds had been purchased by Home Office and non-Home Office forces in 2000 at a cost of £157,474, and that a further 25,500 had been purchased the following year at a cost of £173,910.
Kevin McNamara, who has dubbed the new-version plastic bullet a ‘child killer’ because of its propensity to cause fatal injuries among young and vulnerable victims, has issued strong warnings against the introduction of lethal plastic bullets in England and Wales.
“The experience of Northern Ireland has shown that introduction of crowd control weapons technologies as a non-lethal miracle cure-all is a short-sighted substitute for developing methods of policing with the consent of those who are being policed,” he said.
Since its introduction in the six counties last year, the L21A1 has been responsible for a numerous injuries, several of which have been serious. A number of those injured by the new baton round have been children.
Two legal challenges to the weapon’s use have recently been lodged with the High Court in Belfast.
A total of 122,320 baton rounds were purchased by the RUC following the publication of the Patten report, which called for urgent research into alternatives.
Although the committee of experts given the task of coming up with alternatives is expected to publish its final report later in the year, there is growing concern that the group has so far failed in its objective.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has so far not purchased further supplies of the weapon.
Significantly, Metropolitan police chief Sir John Stevens, who has experience of the weapon’s use in the north of Ireland, issued a statement in May confirming that he had no intention of deploying the weapon in London.
Unfortunately the Met, which has recently came under pressure to accept the weapon after a Police Complaints Authority report published in July urged all police forces to introduce it as an alternative to ‘lethal’ firearms, is understood to be reviewing its position on the introduction of PBRs.
Current British home secretary David Blunkett MP is also among those to have expressed concern about the weapon’s safety. “I am interested in how we can use methods that are less of a risk than plastic baton rounds... about which I have doubts in terms of public safety,” he told fellow MPs last July, during a debate about rioting in Bradford.
However, the Home Office routinely insists that the new baton round (L21A1) is less dangerous than its predecessor (L5A7).
According to the Defence Scientific Advisory Council (DSAC), the new ‘improved’ baton round is “likely to lead to an increase in non-life-threatening injuries”. Yet, in one particularly chilling passage the report warns that if it strikes the head perpendicular to the skull “there is a risk that the projectile will be retained in the head.”
Campaigners believe that the Home Office’s insistence on a more positive interpretation of the group’s findings, which themselves have come in for citicism from weapon’s experts who believe that they do not accurately reflect the dangers posed by the modified baton round weapon, doesn’t stand up to examination.
Responding to the letter from the Sheffield and South Yorkshire branch of the CA, Home Office official Simon Walls set out the Home Office position: “I understand its conclusions state clearly that the L21A1 is more accurate than the L5A7, it has a more consistent muzzle velocity, that the possibility of striking the head and upper torso is reduced and the possibility of unintended strikes reduced. The report also points out that its use will lower the overall frequency of serious life-threatening injuries.”
The Connolly Association disputes this interpretation of the DSAC findings and is among those calling for a complete ban.
“What we have here is yet another case of the conflict in Northern Ireland being used as a training and development ground for methods of policing and crowd control which sooner or later find their way, once tried, tested and refined, across the Irish Sea for more general use,” said CA general secretary Jim Redmond.
“It is ridiculous to describe a weapon as ‘less lethal’. Either it is potentially lethal or it is not. It cannot possibly be both.
“The extension of these weapons to England, Scotland and Wales and their potential for future use in public disorder situations should be a major concern to everyone and we call upon individuals and organisation concerned with civil rights issues to campaign for their removal throughout Britain and the six counties.”
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