Neil McLennan: Arming all police officers an unpalatable response

Machine guns on the streets do not inspire confidence
Machine guns on the streets do not inspire confidence
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After the Manchester attack, Police Scotland tweeted an image of the chief constable with two armed policemen and two civilian runners. ‘Armed police’ proclaimed the hashtag.

The debate over armed police in Scotland has been a hard one for those seeking to “improve the safety and wellbeing of people, places and communities in Scotland”. Police Scotland got their knuckles rapped before for deploying officers to routine calls, and purchasing ‘pieces’ for lunch, wearing side-arms.

Just over a hundred years ago a man purchasing a sandwich in a Sarajevo cafe took the opportunity (his second chance that day) to draw a pistol and undertake an assassination which changed the face of Europe forever, a political assassination resulting from rampant nationalism which we now see re-emerging across the world alongside religious fundamentalism.

A few years after Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, trigger-happy guards sparked similar transformational events in Russia. A nervous finger on the trigger lit the tinder box that had been packed full in the period before the bread riots with economic and political turmoil. It was the perfect storm: international circumstances, local bread riots and a single shot.

Some might say similar storms circulate just now with disruptive forces internationally, food banks and aspects of democratic and civilised society hanging together by a thread.

The role armed police are playing in particular is unenviable, with every call needing split-second decisions and superior sound judgment amid chaotic circumstances. The same is true of soldiers put into danger zones to protect.

However, hopefully we will not see them on our streets again any time soon. It is a mark of the decline of other systems of protection when this is required. It is a sad victory for terrorism when civilian houses have armed officers outside them.

Some have jumped to knee-jerk reactions about arming all police officers. The debate is very different in most parts of Scotland compared to that of inner city Manchester, London and maybe even Glasgow.

However, Glasgow Airport and Westminster attacks had armed officers in the vicinity yet could not stop an attacker from causing carnage in a split second. Furthermore in America the number of shootings on police which are carried out with the officer’s own firearm give another aspect for consideration.

A number of questions need to be asked of authorities and our own tolerances. Can we increase the number of armed response vehicles who are specially trained and quick to respond? Can we increase the number of beat bobbies who gather intelligence and support communities? And can we ensure our intelligence services are equipped to adequately risk-assess threats and neutralise where necessary?

These steps would be more palatable than seeing sidearms and automatic weapons carried on our streets as a matter of course. Studies into police effectiveness show that trust and presence are central in the public’s desires. Nothing will reduce the former more than arming all cops.

Protection and maintaining freedoms are hard to balance, but reducing freedoms in the name of protection can be even harder to claw back.

Neil McLennan is a former head of history and now leadership programme director at Aberdeen University