LONDON — Traditionally, the British bobby was a source of British pride and visitors' envy.
The bobby, armed with little more than a truncheon and the occasional frown, commanded respect and kept the peace, even in the toughest neighborhoods. He seemed to spend as much time helping lost children and misdirected tourists as fighting crime.
"There are few countries in the world where the police are looked upon as men and women who help old ladies across the road or can be asked the time," said Gerald Kaufman, a member of Parliament and home secretary in the Labor Party's shadow Cabinet. "I cannot imagine doing that in New York or France."
But pressures from rising crime, growing social unrest and the threat of international terrorism are rapidly eroding this image of the British police.
For visitors, the sight of London police officers patrolling Heathrow Airport with submachine guns and bulletproof vests is unsettling. For many Britons, the growing arsenal of police equipment is equally so.
In the past decade, a rapidly changing social climate has brought the police into direct and sometimes violent confrontation with racial minorities and special interest groups, and this has led the country's various police forces to equip themselves with armored patrol vehicles, steel helmets, riot shields, plastic bullets and tear gas.
An occasional whiff of scandal in the police ranks and a lack of progress in containing crime have added to the public disquiet.
"In the 1950s, the police were heroes and symbols of national pride, but since then things have come gradually unstuck," said Robert Reiner, a lecturer in the sociology of law at Bristol University. "Today, there is very real opposition from minority groups and parts of the middle class. There's more questioning of the police role in general."
Second on List
To be sure, the level of disaffection and violence remains low by international standards. A recent survey of British attitudes placed the police second only to the country's major banks on a list of institutions that the public considers well run.
The British still rely on the police for a variety of non-emergency tasks, from reporting a lost dog to checking on an elderly relative in a distant town. And although violent crime and instances when firearms are issued to the police are rising sharply, the 27,000 officers of the London Metropolitan Police fired just seven rounds last year in the course of their duties.
Seventy-nine American police officers were killed in the line of duty last year; in Britain, only one. Indeed, last year's death toll among American police officers fell only three short of the number of British police victims this century.
Six of these 82 deaths have been linked to the growth in international terrorism, including three officers killed by a Christmas, 1983, Irish Republican Army bomb planted outside Harrods department store in central London and a policewoman shot by a sniper from the Libyan Embassy four months later.
Efforts to counter this threat have been one reason for the rise in instances in which British policemen today are issued firearms.
But it is a dispiriting malaise of home-grown problems, including a declining respect for authority, high unemployment and racial tensions that have generated the greatest concern about the police role in a society struggling to confront new social pressures.
The intensity of these pressures has escalated rapidly. Chief Supt. Michael Briggs of the Met, as the London force is known, recalls that 10 years ago the police responded to one of London's first major racial disturbances equipped only with night sticks and--to ward off a hail of rocks and bottles--trash can covers and stray pieces of furniture.
Last October, the police turned out against mobs in North London equipped with riot shields, steel helmets, fire-retardant clothing and, for the first time ever, plastic bullets. The latter were not used, even though the rioters fired shotguns.
Last weekend, the police donned riot gear in the city of Bristol to quell sporadic racial disturbances that followed a series of drug raids.
As racial tension simmers in the inner cities, the police elsewhere have been used to tackle politically linked public order disturbances such as anti-nuclear demonstrations and trade union disputes.
Several Bloody Clashes
In a particularly vicious, yearlong coal miner's strike that ended in March, 1985, the police in South Yorkshire engaged in several bloody clashes with pickets. More recently, thousands of policemen in London have been sent to separate angry workers fired by newspaper publisher Rupert Murdoch from employees at his new printing plant in East London.
"We're caught between the pirates of the newspaper industry and the pirates of the trade unions," Chief Supt. Briggs lamented. "The days of compromise are gone. Now these confrontations have to have a winner and a loser, and we're used as arena marshals in wars of attrition."