The people must be heard on policing methods and ensure the chief constable takes heed, writes Brian Monteith
What kind of police force do we really want in Scotland, and do we ordinary people feel able to influence how it operates, how it serves them?
I am prompted to ask this question due to the concerns being raised about how the small number of Scottish police officers who are approved to use firearms can now be seen carrying guns on routine duties. The reason for this is simple enough.
Before Scotland’s eight separate police forces were merged, in what can only be described as a stampede by our centralising SNP government, there were a number of different approaches to how the police would provide an armed response.
In some forces, officers had to obtain the firearms once an incident was reported, some forces used special vehicles that kept guns locked in a safe to try to speed up the response, others had specialist armed response officers that were kept at the ready to deal specifically with incidents that might involve firearms.
Such is the manner of public sector centralisation that a one-size-fits-all policy was introduced and the Police Scotland Chief Constable, Sir Stephen House, took the decision that the optimal solution was to allow specially armed officers to be able to carry their firearms while on routine duties.
There are at least three reasons for the growing outrage about this decision.
Firstly, members of the public are understandably concerned about what seems like the creation of an armed Scottish police force – not so much a Police Scotland as a Police State Scotland.
Secondly, the alarm is especially acute because the chief constable’s decision was taken without any public consultation and was in fact buried as a single line in a lengthy report that most politicians failed to notice or were unaware of. While it is debatable that Sir Stephen House found the best solution to a difficult problem – how to give the best proportionate armed protection to the public and his officers – it is beyond doubt a public relations disaster.
Thirdly, our politicians – and many serving officers – are only now wakening up to the fact that in creating a monolithic police force, we have ended up with a system that is already showing significant problems with local accountability and a service that no longer reflects local needs.
Inverness has one of the lowest crime rates in the whole of the UK, so when three police officers, all of whom happened to be approved for firearm use, turned up at a McDonald’s restaurant to deal with a potential breach of the peace, the fact that they all had holstered Glock 17 semi-automatic pistols made it look more like the type of overreaction one could expect to see from the SWAT team in Hill Street Blues.
It could have been three different police offers that were unarmed, but as the new policy is meant to allow a more immediate and flexible response, the specially approved firearms officers – that make up only 1.6 per cent of the Scottish constabulary – were duty-bound to carry their weapons. What members of the public might think they were about to witness when the officers arrived and what such an approach does for the relationship between the police and the public cannot be known – for there has been no public debate, no consultation and no preparation for the public to understand and accept these new procedures.
It is not as if the Scottish public is without reason to question the behaviour of police with guns. In March of this year, the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner, Professor John McNeill, issued a critical report after a 91-year-old man had been stopped by police at gunpoint near Inverness travelling north on the A9 on 14 November, 2013 – after the creation of Police Scotland on 1 April that year. Four guns were pointed at the pensioner, after which he was handcuffed and detained in a cell for almost six hours before being released without charge.
A relative of the man had claimed the pensioner was travelling north to kill him and might have access to firearms, but Prof McNeill criticised the fact that the police had taken the caller at their word, hadn’t checked if the information was true and stated they did not have reasonable grounds to detain the man and that he should have been intercepted with less force.
The public is used to seeing officers with guns at at airports, at occasions where public dignitaries might be targets and events that could be the target for terrorists – and is generally accepting that this is modern life.
It could be argued that the public might also accept seeing officers with guns in other everyday situations, accepting the caveats that it will not be all officers, but only those with special training and permission, and that they must abide by strict guidance to ensure public safety – but as it has not been explained prior to its introduction that this is indeed the current policy of Police Scotland, then it should be no surprise if the chief constable’s policing methods are branded as a gun-toting police service out of control and accountable to no-one.
Justice Secretary Kenny McAskill simply rolls over and says the public wants its police force to be armed – but how much does the public know about what Sir Stephen House has decided and how? To what extent was the justice secretary aware of the decision, was he consulted, did he agree to it – and why not bring the matter to parliament with a ministerial announcement so that questions could be asked and the public reassured? Is that not what a parliament is for – and surely someone has to be accountable for such a departure from previous policy? Or is our justice secretary too wrapped up in the referendum campaign to do his job properly?
Opposition members of the Scottish Parliament are certainly concerned about how the new firearms policy has evolved without public debate, with statements issued by Labour, the Tories, Liberal Democrats and Greens. Just yesterday, Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie called for a full formal review of the arming of police officers. But if politicians feel impotent and left in the dark, how more alienated must the public feel?
We may need to have some new approaches to how a modern Scottish police force conducts itself, but the best way to achieve support for that is through a public consensus – and building that is the responsibility of the justice secretary and the chief constable of Police Scotland.