Chris Marshall: Armed officers a shift in Scottish policing

IN A week in which justice secretary Kenny MacAskill introduced tighter restrictions on the use of airguns, it emerged our police officers are regularly carrying out routine patrols armed with Glock pistols.

The routine arming of police officers comes against a background of falling crime generally. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

For years we have been rightly proud of our unarmed police in this country – a vestige of a previous era that many of our European neighbours have long since left behind.

But it now appears that since the creation of Scotland’s new single force last year, chief constable Sir Stephen House has authorised hundreds of officers to carry sidearms.

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These officers are not walking the beat but travelling in armed response vehicles, according to Police Scotland.

But in an attempt to justify the move, the force said armed officers had dealt with everything from road traffic collisions to missing person inquiries and “engaging with vulnerable or potentially suicidal persons”.

Why armed officers are needed to attend such incidents is another matter.

The routine arming of police officers comes against a background of falling crime generally, with gun crime at its lowest level since records began in 1980.

Indeed, there has been a 71 per cent drop in the number of recorded crimes and offences involving firearms since 2006-7, according to Scottish Government figures.

On Monday, assistant chief constable Bernie Higgins said Police Scotland’s policy on the deployment of firearms had now been outlined to MSPs.

Writing to each party’s justice spokesperson, Mr Higgins said officers no longer had to stop and arm themselves on the way to an incident, a process which can take up to 20 minutes.

“These officers are available 24 hours a day to protect the public and are available to respond to incidents in which the deployment of armed officers is assessed as appropriate,” he said.

Mr Higgins added that the deployment of armed officers in circumstances “deemed proportionate” did not equate to the “routine arming of police”.

Those who read his missive will no doubt be left confused by the apparent contradiction that police are not routinely armed, but armed police are responding to routine calls.

The issue has caused considerable disquiet at Holyrood, where politicians are increasingly frustrated by the justice secretary’s refusal to get involved in anything to do with “operational matters”.

The arming of our police is more than just an operational matter, it is a major shift in the culture of policing as we know it. Furthermore, at a time of falling gun crime, it appears to be altogether unnecessary.