THE top policeman in the Highlands has admitted the force did not make councillors aware of a dramatic change in policy to arm officers in the region.
Councillors today made it clear to Chief Superintendent Julian Innes that guns should not be commonplace in the region.
The area’s most senior officer asked for the issue to be added to the agenda of the local authority’s Community Safety committee so he could explain why it was important for some of his officers to be permanently armed.
He brought along one of the armed response vehicles, two trained officers from the Armed Unit and two senior officers who make the decisions to deploy them, in a bid to defuse the controversy.
But the committee decided to raise the issue with Police Scotland Chief Constable Stephen House and the Police Authority outlining their concerns about the radical change in police.
Earlier, Mr Innes admitted to the Scotsman that previous claims the former Northern Joint Police Board had been informed of the new policy was incorrect.
He said: “At the final meeting of the Northern Constabulary Police Board on 28 February 2013 members were made aware we were working towards creating a dedicated Armed Response Vehicle.”
However, he then admitted: “They were not aware of the Police tactics that would be involved by moving to a Standing Authority (for the use of firearms) which is a Police tactical decision.”
The former convener of the board, Norman Macleod said: “I read the Chief Superintendent say the policy had been in place before the creation of Police Scotland and that we as a board had been told about it.
“That is absolutely rubbish. To me that is an inaccurate statement. To my knowledge we were never made aware of it.
“I would like to see such a report being put to us. It is an issue that would have raised our heads straight away. It is not something we would quickly forget about.”
At today’s meeting with councillors the policeman defended the new policy, stating having unarmed officers “would add 10-20 minutes to our response times” to emergency situations.
He added: “I will take your comments back to my senior management team but it is not a decision for me. It is one for Police Scotland.
“However I must make my position clear that I support the decision to have armed officers on our streets permanently as the risk of threat is there and we have to respond quickly to keep people safe.”
But it failed to reassure Highland councillors who oversee an area the size of Belguim where there is a rifle or shotgun for every five people.
Permanently armed officers were introduced in the Highlands and Islands in early 2013 – before Police Scotland took control and introduced a national policy.
There are a sergeant and 16 officers, including one female in the unit, driving vehicles which are similarlily equipped across the country with handguns, carbine rifles, CS gas and tasers.
In its first year, the national force considered using firearms in the north of Scotland 115 times and were actually deployed to 41 incidents.
Inspector Willie Maclennan revealed only two of these call-outs involved persons with firearms. However he added: “But it is not just about someone being armed with a gun, it is also about other lethal weapons like knives or hammers.
“The unit is also involved in other policing duties like dealing with road traffic incidents, drugs and other crime. Compared to the two or three years before the unit was set up, there has been no significant increase in the number of times armed officers have been deployed in this area.
“Guns have always been available to issue to our officers. The difference now is they carry them all the time and response times are much shorter.”
But councillors later declared the sight of officers with Glock automatic pistols in their holsters unacceptable and will raise their concerns in letters to the Scottish Police Authority and Chief Constable Sir Stephen House.
Liberal Democrat David Alston said: “My concern is that officers carry a weapon on duty all the time. I am astonished by this. It was a significant change which should have been the subject of much greater debate by local authorities.
“It sends out entirely the wrong message about the Highlands which is proud of being a safe and friendly place to live.
“Local discretion has been removed from local officers and I am uncomfortable about that. It is very much heavy handed by those officers at the top of Police Scotland.
“But sadly it is not an issue for us or any other council. It is a matter for the Scottish Police Authority and the Scottish Government.”
Skye Independent councillor Hamish Fraser agreed and called for the handguns to be kept in the vehicle “out of sight.”