Kenny MacAskill under fire over armed police

Armed police patrol at Glasgow Airport. Picture: Contributed
Armed police patrol at Glasgow Airport. Picture: Contributed
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JUSTICE secretary Kenny MacAskill has been challenged over the move to arm hundreds of Scottish police, which went ahead without scrutiny by the Scottish Parliament.

Labour’s justice spokesman, Graeme Pearson, has written to the justice secretary to express his concern at the lack of information surrounding the increasing number of officers carrying weapons. In his letter, Pearson, a former senior police officer who ran the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency, suggests that Scotland suffers from a lack of police accountability.

Earlier this year it emerged that officers are regularly carrying handguns while on routine duties when Police Scotland admitted 440 specialist firearms officers had been authorised to carry weapons by Chief Constable Sir Stephen House. Last week, customers in McDonalds in Inverness expressed alarm after seeing armed police officers in the fast food restaurant.

Pearson’s letter referred to a private briefing that MacAskill said he had had from the Chief Constable on firearms policy and a note, buried within numerous papers, given to members of the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) on the subject.

Pearson suggested that such a decision should have been debated more widely. “I would be interested to know if you still maintain that your private briefing, in the absence of a full Scottish Police Authority consultation and/or the briefing of parliament in the chamber or via its committee processes, was the appropriate way to deal with this matter?” Pearson asked.

“Additionally, you have indicated the changes involved here were a matter of operational independence. Can you explain where the boundary lies between the discretion afforded a chief constable in terms of operational independence and a requirement for proper accountability through effective governance when matters of public concern arise?”

Pearson added: “While I would hope that it would never happen, in the event that an officer is ever involved in the discharge of his or her weapon in circumstances evolving from a routine situation, are you satisfied that an audit of the arrangements leading to the changes surrounding the arming of our police will stand scrutiny?

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Armed police officers have been a longstanding feature of policing in Scotland and it is for the Chief Constable to make operational decisions about where and when to deploy resources.

“In the first year of Police Scotland, specialist firearms units attended more than 1,300 incidents across the whole of Scotland – including more than 100 in the Highlands. The approach taken by Police Scotland is an operational decision which allows officers to be deployed quickly in the event of any emergencies.

“Crime in Scotland is at a 39-year low and violent crime is down by almost a half since 2006-7, supported by more than 1,000 extra police officers out in our communities, keeping people safe. This compares to a reduction of 15,000 police officers in England and Wales.