Police Scotland should have exposed its latest strategy to far greater public scrutiny given its controversial history, writes Dani Garavelli
On the face of it, the proposal by Police Scotland to allow armed officers to attend non-violent incidents if they are closer to the scene than their unarmed counterparts makes logistical sense. With the number of front-line officers falling, it seems wasteful to have some of the most highly-trained sitting idle when they could be mucking in, attending road accidents and improving response times.
Perhaps too the plan to arm 500 more officers with tasers is judicious given the increased threats of violence police officers appear to be facing. So far in 2017, 969 officers have been assaulted – an increase of nearly 27 per cent on 2016 – with 3,000 officer days lost over the past three years as a consequence of the injuries sustained. If the mere threat of being tasered prevented some of those assaults, that could only be a good thing.
And yet, something about the announcement, made on Thursday by Deputy Chief Constable Johnny Gwynne, was discomfiting. Maybe it was the timing – so close to the Scottish budget the chances were it would be overshadowed by other news. Maybe it was my inability to recall any public debate on what are quite significant shifts in policy. Or maybe it was the defensive response from prominent police representatives to anyone who dared to suggest such decisions should subject to greater scrutiny. Whatever, like law lecturer Dr Nick McKerrell, I couldn’t help but wonder if the force was taking advantage of “a vacuum of accountability”; like Green MSP John Finnie, I worried this was “mission creep towards a fully armed service”.
To understand why people might be hyper-sensitive about these proposals, which will be put before the Scottish Police Authority on Tuesday, you have to go back to 2014 when it emerged the then chief constable Stephen House had secretly authorised more than 400 firearms officers to carry handguns at all times rather than getting kitted up for specific incidents.
House, who had changed the policy without recourse to parliament, was forced into a U-turn after photographs of officers wearing guns in shopping centres appeared in some national newspapers.
Back then, Deputy Chief Constable Iain Livingstone said: “We have balanced our overriding duty to keep people safe with consideration of the views expressed about the perception of armed officers supporting local policing activities.” Yet, a year later, MSPs learned hundreds of armed officers were still being sent to pub brawls and drink driving incidents in defiance of the climbdown.
Since then, of course, the context has changed: a series of terrorist attacks around the country has heightened the risk to police and public safety. In particular, the death of unarmed PC Keith Palmer outside the Houses of Parliament renewed calls for more police officers to carry guns.
This rise in incidents – and the claim we couldn’t cope with a major attack – led Police Scotland to increase the number of armed officers in the force from 275 to 399. Fair enough.
However, as the recent BBC documentary The Force clearly demonstrated, policing by consent – the idea that the police gain their legitimacy through society’s approval based on transparency, integrity and accountability – has always been at the core of the Scottish service. If terrorist attacks undermine that principle – if they lead to a more militarised police service being brought in through the back door – then they have achieved their aim: to change the way we function.
Particularly concerning is the proposed increase in the number of officers who carry tasers. Tasers deliver an electric shock and are still hugely controversial; in England and Wales, their increased use has prompted concerns from Amnesty International, which warns they shouldn’t be used against children, the elderly, or people who have a mental health condition or are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
In the past four years, tasers have been linked with the deaths of two men: 23-year-old Jordan Begley in 2013 and former Aston Villa player Dalian Atkinson, 48, in 2016. The inquest into Begley’s death heard how he had been shot by the 50,000-volt stun gun and hit with “distraction strikes”, while being restrained by three armed Greater Manchester police officers. The jury ruled the use of the taser and restraint had “more than materially contributed” to a “package” of stressful factors leading to his cardiac arrest.
Atkinson died after he was tasered three times outside his father’s home in Telford, Shropshire. Three West Mercia police officers are under criminal investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) in connection with the tragedy.
A recent Scottish Police Federation survey found nine out of 10 officers wanted to be armed with tasers. Their use is set to be reviewed next autumn and any officer discharging the device will continue to be referred to Scotland’s police watchdog, the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (PIRC).
Making the announcement, Gwynne said the force had been engaged in an extensive engagement with politicians, stakeholders and local communities. But in reality there has been little public discussion about something that could alter the nature of policing; and the fact the tasers were announced at the same time as the news about armed officers makes one wonder if they weren’t being presented as the lesser of two evils.
The problem is that this is a time of great upheaval in Police Scotland. A series of controversies and high-profile suspensions have eroded both officer morale and public trust. With Chief Constable Phil Gormley on leave of absence, the force is rudderless, while Susan Deacon has only just taken over as chair of the beleaguered Scottish Police Authority.
With things still in a state of flux, it is arguably not the best time to be implementing policies as contentious and far-reaching as these. And the high-handed tone of police representatives who seem to believe that no-one outside the force should express an opinion does nothing to boost confidence that public concerns will be taken on board.
Perhaps a more flexible deployment of armed officers and an increase in the number of officers who carry tasers will turn out to be the best way forward. But more scrutiny on the part of politicians – and more acceptance of the need for scrutiny on the part of police representatives – would go a long way towards reassuring the public that the right decisions are being taken for the right reasons.