Armed Police

I have been campaigning to reverse the decision to have Armed Response Vehicle police attend routine, non-firearms duties while carrying their weapons. I was delighted to have persuaded Police Scotland to halt the practice, in October last year, and humbled to have this success recognised with The Herald’s Community MSP of the Year award.

The initial decision to routinely deploy armed officers was taken with virtually no publicity, so it was only after constituents contacted me asking why they had begun to see officers attending duties like pub closing time in Inverness and the Highland Cross Duathlon in Beauly that the policy was questioned in public at all.

I challenged then-Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill about the decision on 20 May 2014:

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Ind):
Was a community impact assessment undertaken in the Highlands and Islands before the decision to deploy armed response vehicle officers overtly carrying firearms to routine non-firearms-related incidents?

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice (Kenny MacAskill):
I cannot answer that. Mr Finnie would have to ask the former chief constable of Northern Constabulary, Mr Graham, now retired, and the former board of the Northern Constabulary. It may be that he would want to speak to former board members; he may be acquainted with some of them.

You can watch the video of that exchange here – it starts at 10 minutes in:

Although the Cabinet Secretary mostly brushed off questions in May, we kept up the public pressure, and he was left with no choice but to return to the Parliament in August to give a ministerial statement on 5 August. Again, I tried to probe for insight as to how the decision was taken:

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Ind):
I apologise to you, Presiding Officer, and to the cabinet secretary for missing his opening few words and thank him for his statement.

The cabinet secretary made reference to the Highlands and Islands and Northern Constabulary on more than one occasion. There have been various versions of who was responsible, and when, for the fundamental change to the very successful policing style.

This is not about skills; it is not about numbers. Three armed officers attending a minor incident in Inverness high street is not what the public want to see. It is also inconceivable that a risk assessment would change at midnight for five of the constituent forces—that is lazy management.

Will the cabinet secretary agree to publish the decision-making process behind that change to policy for each of the constituent forces and place it in the Scottish Parliament information centre? That would be one way of advancing his view that local policing was considered. It is certainly not my view and it is certainly not the public’s view.

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice (Kenny MacAskill):
I do not have that information. The information that would apply to previous police boards belongs to police boards or indeed to their constituent members. It is not something that the Government would routinely have access to. That is an issue that perhaps the member would be better raising with council colleagues.

I understand and take on board the concerns that people have about seeing armed officers attending various incidents. However, I say to the member and to the chamber that reference was made to an incident in Glasgow last week or a fortnight ago, where armed police attended a road traffic incident.

I saw the information that Police Scotland made available on that incident. It did that because the armed vehicle was closest to the incident. When the officers arrived, they sought to have others come to relieve them but because of other pressures, no other officers were able to get there. One of the three ladies who were injured had a broken or dislocated hip and was in a significant amount of pain. [Interruption.]

Members should perhaps listen to this. In my understanding of what is in the report, the police officer cradled that lady as she was dealt with by medical staff. Those officers did not wish to be there; they would rather have departed, allowed other officers to come in and got back to patrolling. I think that they did the right thing and should be commended, not condemned. Had other officers been available, the original officers would have departed, but it was much better that they assisted with the welfare and care of that lady at the road traffic incident than that they waved goodbye, said that it was nothing to do with them and left her in pain and suffering.

Later that month, it was announced that the Scottish Police Authority and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland would hold parallel inquiries into how and why Police Scotland made the decision to deploy armed officers on routine duties.

You can hear my response to this news here:

If the Scottish Government or Police Scotland thought the announcement of these reviews would end protest at the routine arming of our police, they were sorely disappointed. Less than two months after the inquiries were announced, the Chief Constable submitted to public pressure and pulled the plug on the armed police policy.

Police Scotland announced that “the Chief Constable has directed that firearms officers attached to Armed Response Vehicles will now only be deployed to firearms incidents or where there is a threat to life.” It was a huge win for the campaign.

Though armed officers are no longer a routine sight on our streets, the campaign to keep it that way goes on. Worryingly, the Scottish Police Authority’s review, released in January, did not question the original decision and paved the way for the reappearance of police firearms on our streets, which I fear remains Police Scotland’s ultimate goal. The publication of the report was delayed by several weeks, which appears to have been caused by demands from Police Scotland that the report be rewritten to better serve their position.

For the time being, the decision, taken in October, to only use armed officers where firearms are needed remains in place. The SPA report recommends that Police Scotland consult with local authorities and others before changing that – though it doesn’t require them to comply with the responses they get back. I fully expect Police Scotland to begin pushing to return armed police to routine duties, and of course I’ll use every opportunity to stop that happening.

In March 2015, while questioning the Chief Constable on police stop and search tactics, I raised the issue of armed officers again:

Following the Paris attacks on 13 November 2015, the Scottish Police Federation issued a statement saying they believe “the police service in Scotland and from across the wider UK could not cope with an attack on the scale of that unleashed in Paris”, and that part of the solution is for more officers to carry firearms while going about their routine duties. Worryingly, they added that they were “not calling for a full-armed police service at this time.”

Shortly before the Federation statement was released, I had met with Deputy Chief Constable Iain Livingstone and Assistant Chief Constable Bernard Higgins, who have responsibility for counter-terrorism and firearms issues, and discussed Police Scotland’s readiness t respond to an incident like Paris.

I was invited on to BBC’s Good Morning Scotland to respond the following day. I was keen to stressed the need for police strategy to be based on a level-headed assessment of the real nature of the risk posed to Scotland. I told the presenter, Gary Robertson, that having questioned DCC Livingstone and ACC Higgins about Scotland’s readiness, I am confident that there is sufficient capacity to deal with any known threat.

You can hear the whole Good Morning Scotland segment here; it starts at 1 hour 36 minutes into the programme.

It is unlikely that having some more officers carry out armed patrols as a matter of course would make any material difference to the response to a Paris-style attack. It would be more likely to contribute to alienation and mistrust between the community and the police, that could hamper the intelligence-gathering that we need to prevent any future atrocity.