Chris Marshall: Scotland needs armed police, but not like US

In a country which has become depressingly accustomed to police shootings, the death of Philando Castile at the hands of an officer in Minnesota last week still managed to be truly shocking.

Scottish police, even those who are armed, are not taught to kill in order to protect themselves. Picture: AFP/Getty
Scottish police, even those who are armed, are not taught to kill in order to protect themselves. Picture: AFP/Getty

A school cafeteria supervisor, Mr Castile was travelling with his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter when he was pulled over by police.

According to his partner, Mr Castile was shot dead as he reached for his licence – the bloody aftermath filmed on her mobile phone and streamed over the internet.

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In the United States, a country seemingly in the grip of a violence epidemic, the shooting is far from exceptional.

In fact it is just one of many, many incidents in recent years where young black men have been shot dead by police officers.

It all makes Scotland’s latest controversy over armed policing seem very tame indeed.

Earlier this week, four armed Police Scotland officers were seen eating breakfast at a Tesco store in Dingwall.

The episode has led to calls from local politicians for armed policing to be reviewed and has re-ignited the debate about the deployment of officers carrying firearms.

Following controversy in 2014, Police Scotland said firearms officers would only be deployed to incidents involving guns or where there was a “threat to life”.

If we are to accept that Scotland requires a small number of armed officers – and the available evidence suggests the vast majority of the public does – then we should not cry out every time an armed officer is seen on duty.

Scotland is not the United States.

Gun ownership is not an issue here in the way it is across the Atlantic.

Neither are our police taught to routinely use “deadly force” in the way their American colleagues are.

Indeed, amid concern over police shootings in the US, law enforcement officials last year travelled to Scotland to learn more about quelling violent disturbances without reaching for their weapons.

We should be proud that Scotland and the rest of the UK remains one of the few places any-
where in the world without routinely armed officers.

But it is now beyond question that Scotland needs a number of armed officers.

The terror attacks in Paris last year and in Brussels earlier this year have dramatically re-focused the debate since the controversy of 2014.

Last month Police Scotland announced the number of armed officers is to rise by a third in response to the raised terror threat.

The force will train an additional 124 firearms officers, 90 of whom will go on patrol with armed response vehicles (ARVs) – a 33 per cent increase on the existing 275 ARV officers, who would be “first responders” in the event of an attack.

Despite the increase, fewer than 3 per cent of Scotland’s 17,000 police officers will be armed.

While we need to remain vigilant that the move doesn’t lead to routine arming through the back door, the rise seems proportionate to the threat that is now faced.

Scotland’s police officers are no longer being deployed to routine incidents in the way they were following the formation of the national force in 2013.

We should be thankful that their number remains small and most will never need to use their weapon.

The time has come to let them get on with their jobs.