Focus: Locked & loaded - Scotland’s armed officers

A statement issued in May admitted blithely that armed response officers were now 'routinely armed' when attending incidents. Picture: John Jeffay/Cascade News
A statement issued in May admitted blithely that armed response officers were now 'routinely armed' when attending incidents. Picture: John Jeffay/Cascade News
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Are recent sightings of officers carrying guns for routine duties just a fact of modern life or a sign that Police Scotland has taken its ‘operational independence’ too far, asks Jane Bradley

WHEN a row between two men outside of a McDonald’s restaurant looked like it was turning nasty, a member of the public called the police.

Worried diners at the Inverness branch of the burger chain were delighted when three officers turned up promptly to sort out the scuffle. But the incident turned out to be far more significant than anyone enjoying a Saturday night out in the city, could have imagined.

A staff photographer from the local newspaper happened to be walking past at the time and grabbed his camera to snap a picture of the officers striding towards the restaurant. All three policemen had black Glock semi-automatic pistols strapped to their hips.

The implication of the photograph’s publication was clear: armed police officers in Scotland had attended a fairly minor incident openly carrying their firearms and everyone knew it. Meanwhile, on the same night, 12 July, just a couple of miles away, it later emerged that two further armed officers were patrolling the city, which has one of the lowest crime rates in Scotland.

“This was the moment it all changed,” says Labour shadow justice minister Graeme Pearson, who has written to Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill to call for an urgent political debate into the authorisation of firearms within Police Scotland. “Until that photo appeared in the press last week, the charge was being denied by the Chief Constable and Kenny MacAskill.”

It was in the Highlands and Islands where the question of armed police had first reared its head in May, after a constituent of independent MSP and former police officer John Finnie spotted an armed officer on regular patrol and wrote to his local representative. Other members of the public claimed sightings of officers openly carrying arms while picking up a snack – or shopping in a local supermarket with their weapons hanging from their belts.

“We’ve now got a situation where police are going shopping wearing the Glock and are going to McDonald’s wearing firearms,” says Pearson, also a former police officer. “That is most definitely not the type of policing we have been used to in Scotland.”

The response to Finnie’s questions over why officers were regularly sporting guns – rather than reserving them for specific types of incidents – was unexpected.

Police Scotland – the single body formed from the amalgamation of eight individual police forces just over a year ago under the governorship of Chief Constable Sir Stephen House, who had previously headed up Strathclyde Police – was unapologetic and unwavering.

A statement issued in May admitted blithely that armed response officers were now “routinely armed” when attending incidents: a contrast to the previous regime, when guns were locked in a safe within special vans and unlocked only when needed.

Now, officers with the authorisation to carry arms can do it openly, touting the handguns – the same brand used by many police officers operating in the US – as part of their uniform. The practice, it emerged, had already been widespread in the former Strathclyde police region, where the highest number of Scotland’s armed incidents occur, and, MacAskill has recently admitted to parliament, in the regions previously known as Tayside and Northern.

Police Scotland has insisted the choice was made to avoid a “postcode lottery” for Scots in terms of protection.

House himself openly admits that the northwest of Scotland is one of the safest areas of the UK. In fact, figures out earlier this year showed that reported crime in Scotland as a whole has fallen by 22 per cent in the past four years.

Regardless, the idea that police are regularly openly carrying guns anywhere in Scotland is news to most – not just people in the regions where it has hitherto not been a common sight.

Police Scotland has 275 trained firearms officers who carry both Tasers and handguns, making up 1.6 per cent of the force’s personnel, deployed on a shift pattern basis.

The new rules, Police Scotland admitted, had begun on 1 April last year, the day that the single force was formed.

Concerns were raised early over the accountability of the new force, which is divided into 14 divisions, each with its own commander. The change meant that local councillors would no longer question the chief constable, with only the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) able to hold him accountable.

Martin Greig, a former Grampian convener, warned that the creation of Police Scotland would mean that local people would no longer have a voice in the way policing was governed.

Some might argue that the recent revelations have realised Greig’s fears. Indeed in response to such concerns House has merely reiterated that his decision is the right one – no debate. The decision had been made as a matter of “operational independence”, an authority granted to chief constables over critical decision making within the force. MacAskill is believed to have met privately with House to discuss the issue, but no public announcement was made.

“Armed police officers have been a long-standing feature of policing in Scotland,” says a Scottish Government spokeswoman. “It is for the Chief Constable to make operational decisions about where and when to deploy resources.”

The row has now spread south of the Border, with Westminster’s chief secretary to the Treasury – Liberal Democrat MP Danny Alexander – last week demanding an urgent meeting with House. He was joined by fellow Lib Dem and QC Sir Menzies Campbell, who warned that the controversial decision could be perceived, historically, as the main legacy of the Scottish Government.

Pearson, who has today raised fears over a “US-style” police culture in Scotland, believes the issue reflects wider concerns over the future culture of the police force.

“If the chief constable has the power to make these kinds of decisions using his ‘operational independence’, where does the limit to that decision making power lie?” he asks. “If he decides these Glocks aren’t good enough and he wants bigger and better arms, who authorises that? The finance department? If the money is there to do it, can he just go ahead?”

Last month, it emerged that documents submitted at the birth of Police Scotland had contained a “couple of paragraphs” relating to the arming of police officers – but officials from the SPA, which was set up with the purpose of scrutinising House’s actions, had not been made aware of them specifically.

A board meeting of the SPA at the end of June saw House quizzed by board members over why the issue had not been more publicly discussed.

“It is a decision which I took and which I was consistent about,” he insisted, shifting uncomfortably in his chair as he pointed to his own decision to openly arm officers when head of the Strathclyde force.

More interestingly, House’s defence of the lack of publicity surrounding the move was that it had not been observed by the public until recently – and was therefore deemed to be of little consequence.

“You could say we should have told them about this. The reality is that the fact that nobody in the something like 17 months that this had been going on had noticed this and raised it with a politician is significant,” he told the meeting.

SPA chairman Vic Emery insists that the “clarity” achieved at the June board meeting means the body is confident that the practice will remain limited to the “trained few” and will not be extended across Scotland as a whole.

“We have made it clear that there is a need for ongoing information, transparency and reassurance on this issue,” he says. “That is why the matter was the subject of detailed consideration at our last public meeting at the end of June. The SPA will keep the issue under review – particularly around the areas of risk, health and safety, and complaints.”

But while there are no current plans to arm every police officer on the beat, there is no doubt that the recent change in ruling allows all officers trained in firearms to openly carry their weapons whenever they please.

House’s presentation to the SPA board meeting made it clear that he did not want to see a varied response across the country – but wanted a blanket policy across the whole of Police Scotland.

Indeed, House’s decision represents a significant shift in Scotland’s policing and has set off alarm bells for many.

Alongside police forces in the rest of the UK, Scotland’s officers have historically been lauded for maintaining law and order without the need for arms – bar in exceptional circumstances. Although senior officers in Robert Peel’s original 19th century police force would often carry a side-arm, the decision to routinely arm officers was abandoned, except in Northern Ireland, where it is common practice as a result of the Troubles.

In the US, where arming police is the norm, there have been increasing claims of a shift towards further militarisation. There have been accounts of American officers using “flashbang” grenades in the homes of sleeping families during special response raids and a recent report from the American Civil Liberties Union of forces obtaining military equipment, vehicles and uniforms direct from the Department of Defence.

Those opposed to routine arming of police in the UK argue that violence can lead to violence, citing situations where an armed officer could wander into a relatively minor fray and have his gun wrestled from him – with tragic consequences.

At the time he was approached by his concerned constituent, about policemen with guns, Finnie said: “They are now routinely wearing them. That in itself concerns me. The fact they are deployed in support of police officers at routine police incidents – for example the dispersal of people from public houses and nightclubs – is, I think, a recipe for disaster and I am deeply concerned about it.”

But others believe that Scotland’s law enforcement ethos is little changed by the decision to openly carry arms.

In his book The Scottish Police Officer, published late last year to coincide with the restructuring of Police Scotland, author and former chief superintendent of Strathclyde police force, Daniel Donnelly, lauds the Scottish police force for having “a history of being pioneers in policing” and “producing innovative policing methods”.

Donnelly, who moved into academic research of policing issues after leaving the force, claims that the “vast majority” of police officers believe they should not be routinely armed and think that “the traditional unarmed police patrol officer is worth retaining”.

But he does not believe that the current situation has altered that.

“It has not changed,” he insists. “The vast majority of police officers still feel the same. We need to be clear where the focus should be here. The way this has come out has been criticised, so perhaps the issue is communication. But we are still a country that does not have armed police. We are focusing on the wrong issue.”

Donnelly recalls his time as an armed response officer in the 1980s, when he had to rush back to a locker in the police station to pick up his gun if he was called to an incident which required him to be armed.

“It was inadequate,” he remembers. “The number of armed response incidents at that time was increasing, so something had to change and we started carrying them in some vans. The police force needs to change with the times.”

None the less, critics this week have taken to Twitter to express their anger over the change: “Scots police being armed without a by your leave,” says Liz Campbell. “And politicians are only noticing this now! An inquiry is needed and fast!”

MSP Pearson, alongside others, hopes his demands for a debate on the issue will be met, and soon.

But it looks likely that whatever talk there is surrounding the controversy, Police Scotland will stand by its policy.

A review is due later in the summer – Police Scotland insists the process, like other fundamental tactics utilised in the force, is under a “constant process of review” – but there is unlikely to be any backtracking.

House’s deputy, Iain Livingstone, insists that his boss’s decision is the right one.

“The decision for any authorisation of firearms is fundamentally an operational decision,” says deputy chief constable Livingstone, adding that public feedback to the police has been generally “positive”. “Going back to the creation of Police Scotland, the decision is but one issue on the different approach to armed support across Scotland as whole. There is a constitutional point about operational independence. It is a duty and a responsibility that the chief constable and all the officers and staff under his jurisdiction have.”«

Twitter: @JaneKBradley