POLICE SCOTLAND’S independent watchdog has backed the roll-out of permanently armed officers throughout Scotland, but said the force could have done more to communicate the decision to the public.
HM Inspector of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) said the decision to give 275 officers standing authority to carry firearms “is justified by national intelligence and threat levels”.
But it said Police Scotland “underestimated the community impact of its policy to allow armed response vehicle (ARV) officers to attend non-firearms-related incidents, and could have done more in terms of local engagement and addressing localised concerns”.
Police Scotland provoked an outcry from some MSPs and community groups after armed officers were seen attending routine incidents such as road traffic collisions and minor crimes.
The force later withdrew the authority for armed police to attend routine incidents, saying they would only be deployed to life-threatening incidents or those involving firearms.
The report of HMICS’s review of the policy has been published today.
HM Inspector of Constabulary in Scotland Derek Penman said: “The operational need for the standing authority is justified by national intelligence and threat levels and that overt carriage of the hand gun and Taser is the best and safest method of carriage for officers crewing an ARV.
“The report points out that following reform of Scottish policing, there has been more equitable access to an armed policing response and the number of trained firearms officers has actually reduced overall.
“However, it also states the impact of the policy change on public perception was not fully considered by Police Scotland nor has there been a full and informed debate around the deployment of firearms officers to incidents and duties that do not require a firearms response.”
Vic Emery, chair of civilian oversight body the Scottish Police Authority, said: “We welcome publication of the findings of the HMICS review, which will inform the SPA’s own scrutiny inquiry into the impact of the standing firearms authority.
“The key findings provide independent assurances on the standing authority process, a thoughtful assessment of where communication and engagement in the past could have been better, and also signposts areas for improvement that could have more far-reaching benefits for other policing policies with wider impacts.
“I believe there has already been a general acknowledgement within policing that communications around this issue could have been improved.
“SPA sees the publication of this report as a helpful watershed between identifying various gaps and grey areas of the past, and looking forward to embedding the further lessons of this in improved policy consideration and decision-making in the future.
“It is on defining expectations and improvements in the key areas of communication, consultation and community impact that the SPA’s complementary inquiry is now concentrated.
“That is why the remit of our inquiry was deliberately broader than the specific issue of armed response officers. Our call for evidence has already received almost 200 submissions, and we will also be running public evidence sessions in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Inverness over the next few weeks.
“The findings of our full inquiry will be presented at our public SPA meeting in December.”
Councillor Harry McGuigan, community wellbeing spokesman for council umbrella group Cosla, said: “I welcome the focus on localism within this report which continues HMICS’s commitment to ensuring that Police Scotland and the SPA take local considerations into account with regard to national policing policies.
“It is crucial that councils’ legitimate interest in scrutinising national policing policies is recognised but those roles and responsibilities need to be clearer. At the end of the day, every national policy Police Scotland implements impacts upon local communities.
“I would be disappointed, however, if the report implied an acceptance that police officers may reasonably be required to perform routine duties while carrying firearms. Cosla’s position is that armed police should only be deployed where necessary.
“To have armed police performing routine duties threatens good relations between police officers and local communities and also contradicts the valuable notion of policing by consent which is vital in a vibrant democracy.”