Get armed police off our streets

armed police uk by John Finnie MSP There are those who argue that the police service in Scotland is subjected to more scrutiny than ever. There are the local committees, the Scottish Police Authority (SPA), the Parliament’s Justice Committee and its Police Sub Committee. How on earth therefore can there have been such a dramatic change in the arrangements for deploying officers from the country’s Armed Response Vehicles (ARVs)?

ARV officers, meantime small in number and high on fire-power, are now sent to ‘support’ officers at all sorts of incidents from monitoring clubs at closing time, domestic violence, road accidents, to simply patrolling on foot at family charity events. I am the ‘guilty’ party who highlighted this practice in May of this year. I used a national broadsheet to carry the story for a few reasons: I knew I would get balance and my efforts to secure replies to routine matters on constituents’ behalf from Police Scotland were taking longer and longer.

I had hoped they’d take the hint when I asked if the new service operated a ‘correspondence protocol’ however the dismissive reply received was typical of others. Given my background as a full-time official of the Scottish Police Federation, ‘the union man’, I was used to the high-handed manner of chief officers. I make no apology for raising the issue and, as a previous story in the Voice highlighted, unchallenged, this heavy-handed approach to policy and policing could lead to Scotland having an armed service, something the public do not want and which no meaningful risk assessment would evidence as being required.

One outcome already achieved by my raising the issue is that there has been a debate as to what constitutes an operational police matter and when, if ever, politicians should intervene. Pressure was heaped on the Cabinet Secretary for Justice to intervene and cause a return to the situation where ARV officers had access to weapons, stored in the boot of their car, rather than be given standing authority to carry at all times. His Ministerial Statement pleased few, however, it’s fair to record that at least there was some, long over-due for some, discussion in the Chamber.

The issue revolves around whether past police authorities were advised of a possible change. If they were it came in the form of a few lines, buried in a very large report, talking about standardising arrangements for ARVs with no discussion. Now, the present Chief Constable, the now knighted Stephen House, doesn’t appear to like having to answer to politicians and, on a personal level, seems irked at having to answer in public to a former lowly constable. The scrutiny will continue not least because of the announcement of a complimentary programme of review and inquiry into the matter involving HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMCIS) and the SPA. In a joint press release on the matter, HMCIS states he will independently assess the current arrangements and make it public in a few months.

A reasonable question may be how independent is the HMCIS? The post holder is a recently retired former chief officer in Scotland who had been subordinate to the Chief Constable, however, it’s important that we accept he will act in good faith and provide an evidenced response and the same applies to the SPA. The press release is full of fine words and talks of public reassurance, community impact and the extent to which, if at all, there has been public engagement.

The real test will be how the Chief Constable, who thus far has appeared indifferent to public opinion, indeed referred to those who have raised the issue as mischievous, will respond to the findings. It’s well known, and apparent to anyone who has watched the Chief Constable’s performance when questioned by the Parliament’s Police Committee, that he does not respond to criticism well. I supported the creation of the single service because I supported Council Ward Policing Plans and the new level of community engagement that could have delivered. Sadly, whether from elected Members, Community Councils, the Trade Unions or serving officers, the message I get is that ‘it’s the chief’s way, no debate’.

I’m reliably informed that the very few who ever questioned anything have moved from have responsibility for a large division to charge of paper-clip dispensing. Regardless of the constitutional settlement, we need policing by consent. The public put the Chief Constable in office and his/her job is to protect the public. The recurring message that I get from constituents, grateful that I have raised and continued to press on this issue, is that quite the reverse of feeling safer by having armed police on our streets, they feel unsafe. We have a few months to wait to see if the Chief Constable has the humility to admit he was wrong and get these guns off our streets.

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