THE arming of police in the Highlands should have been widely consulted, according to the body which holds Police Scotland and the Chief Constable to account.
The Scottish Police Authority has admitted that local communities should have been made aware of the change of policy last year.
But SPA chairman Vic Emery OBE also stands by the decision, which has been condemned by Highland councillors and members of the public in the region as it’s perceived to be the safest in the country.
The policy was introduced to the former Northern Constabulary, Tayside and Strathclyde forces just prior to the new force coming in.
But there had been no forewarning, and now 30 officers are armed while carrying out routine duties in the Highlands, much to the disdain of councillors.
In a letter to the local authority, Mr Emery said: “I do think it would have been helpful for communities and local councillors to have been made aware of these changes at an earlier stage, and for more information to have been provided on how the standing firearms authority works and what it means in practice.”
Weapons used to be locked in secure cabinets in the boot of patrol vehicles and only utilised at major incidents.
But Police Scotland and its Chief Constable Stephen House claim arming officers on the streets is necessary to deal with urgent emergencies.
Around 30 officers in the Highlands routinely carry firearms.
The move has been opposed by the local authority, Inverness MP Danny Alexander and Independent Highlands and Islands MSP John Finnie, a former policeman and union official who first raised the issued.
Deputy leader of the Highland Council David Alston said: “It is clear from the letter from the chairman of the police authority that there is a recognition that perhaps that the chief constable has not been handled this particularly well in PR terms; and that there should have been greater transparency.
“But it is equally apparent that nothing will change.
“The authority still accepts it is an operational matter for the chief constable. It is also clear from his letter that Sir Stephen is not willing to entertain the idea of regional variation of the standing authority. This is contrary to the assurances that were given at the time the single police force was created. It means that even in low crime areas such as the Highlands, we will still have armed police turning up where it is not appropriate.”
Councillor Alston said: “What we desperately need now is maximum clarification of what exactly the chief constable’s powers are and what checks and balances are in place, if any. The council will now be seeking that information through parliament if necessary.”
In his letter to Highland Council, Mr Emery said: “I do not accept a material shift in policy has taken place within policing.
“This is a specialist practice in all but one of 43 police forces in England and Wales.
“This is a specialist activity carried out by the trained few, not a routine expectation of the many officers in our communities.
“This decision is within the responsibilities of the chief constable, as it relates to the deployment of officers under his direction and control.”
However, he adds: “I do agree that consideration of the issue in a public forum, and openness around decision making and rationale, in entirely appropriate.”
Politicians have raised concerns over the use of armed police in “routine duties” in the Highlands.
Highland MP Danny Alexander said: “This development is distressing and many Highlanders will be shocked by the new police tactics.
“There is simply no need for officers to carry firearms in the Highlands.
“Ministers need to listen to Highlanders and return to the approachable community-based policing that we want and need.”
And former Northern Constabulary Chief Superintendent Ramsay McGhee said: “It is a damned disgrace.”
Mr McGhee, now manager of Inverness, Highlands and Islands Licensed Trade Association, added: “The Highlands are portrayed as being the safest place in the UK.
“What kind of message is this sending out to tourists? This is just another instance of where Police Scotland are coming from.”
Police Scotland Chief Inspector Charles Armstrong said armed response officers have routinely carried weapons since the national force was formed.
He added: “All officers within specialist services which includes armed policing are deployed in support of their colleagues in territorial divisions.
“They have their part to play in keeping people safe and that includes addressing concerns within communities and responding to calls.
“Armed response officers within Police Scotland are routinely armed and have been since April 1, 2013.”
Police Scotland also argued that the decision was based on the number of rifles and shotguns in private hands, with more than 40,000 guns owned in the Highlands.