Chris Marshall: Police appear to be armed at drop of a hat

WHEN Vic Emery, chair of the Scottish Police Authority (SPA), appeared before MSPs last month, he complained his organisation was only being consulted “after the fact” on major policing decisions.

Police Scotland has repeatedly defended the need for some officers to carry guns. Picture: Dan Phillips
Police Scotland has repeatedly defended the need for some officers to carry guns. Picture: Dan Phillips

According to Mr Emery, who leads the body charged with providing a watchdog role, the chief constable of Police Scotland is effectively free to make operational decisions if and when he pleases, with very little oversight. This is a worrying state of affairs, and leads us to ask – what exactly is the point of the SPA?

Perhaps realising the difficulty his organisation was in, Mr Emery told MSPs on the Scottish Parliament’s justice committee that neither the chief constable, Sir Stephen House, nor justice secretary Kenny MacAskill had consulted him on a decision to grant a standing authority allowing a small number of officers to be armed while on routine patrol.

In a letter to Highland Council in July, Mr Emery said the decision had not represented a “material shift” in policing. He added that “openness around decision making” had been “entirely appropriate”.

Yet just a few weeks later, he was complaining to MSPs that he and the SPA had not been kept in the loop.

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For its part, Police Scotland has repeatedly defended the need for some officers to carry guns. However, armed officers have been seen at routine incidents, including when they were photographed attending a minor altercation at a McDonald’s in Inverness.

Both the SPA and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) in Scotland have now belatedly announced reviews of Police Scotland’s decision on handguns.

What is clear is that these bodies should have been consulted before the decision was made. Given the fact that police officers are already carrying handguns with the backing of the justice secretary, it is going to be very hard decision to reverse.

However, neither the SPA nor the HMIC has covered itself in glory over its handling of an issue which has caused much public concern. The problems the SPA faces were again underlined at the body’s last public meeting, when Mr Emery admitted there had been a “stooshie” between his members and the police over the issue of an ethics advisory panel. While Police Scotland maintained it had briefed members on the issue, some complained they had first read about the idea in newspapers.

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Whatever the case, the SPA needs to get up to speed fast. It may be a nascent organisation, as is Police Scotland, but when a single police officer can take a decision as significant as arming his officers without any political interference, then something has gone badly wrong.