John seeks assurances on armed police


Yesterday (Thursday 17th June) the Cabinet Secretary for Justice Michael Matheson announced that the number of armed police officers in Scotland was set to rise following intelligence about the on-going threat level in the country. You can read the Cabinet Secretary’s, including John’s question here:

Commenting afterwards John said:

“The Justice Secretary must accept that there will be serious public concern about today’s announcement. Although there is information informing the threat level, we must question the quality of the intelligence received and whether it has been obtained legitimately, especially in light of recent revelations about the Scottish Recording Centre.

“I previously challenged Police Scotland over the deployment of armed officers on routine activities. The public will rightly be wondering if the increase in numbers of armed officers will lead to mission creep. I welcome today’s assurance that the deployment policy implemented two years ago will be maintained, meaning that armed police should only be used in firearms incidents or where there is a threat to life.

“If the threat level reduces we must see a reduction in use of armed officers. In putting that point to the Justice Secretary he conceded that a reduction in threat level would allow the level of deployment to be revisited, and I would hope we reach that point in the near future.”


John appointed to two Holyrood committees

Large committee room in the Scottish Parliament
Photo: Adam Elder / Scottish Parliament
John Finnie has been appointed to the Scottish Parliament’s committees on Justice and on Rural Economy and Connectivity.

John has served on the Justice Committee since 2011, drawing on his experience as a former Northern Constabulary police officer. Most notably, he used Justice Committee hearings to hold Police Scotland to account over officers carrying firearms while on routine duties – a campaign for which he received the title of Community MSP of the Year at the 2014 Herald Scottish Politician of the Year Awards.

His appointment to the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee – which is also responsible for transport, agriculture and the Islands – reflects John’s new role as the Scottish Greens’ spokesperson on Transport, Tourism and Rural & Island Communities, as well as remaining the party’s spokesperson on Justice.

John said:

“I’m delighted to be appointed for a second term on the Justice Committee, where my priorities will include restoring the community ethos to Scottish policing, and defending our hard-won human rights.

“Joining the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee is an exciting opportunity to push for the investment the Highlands and Islands needs to make the most of our huge potential in sustainable industries like food, forestry and clean energy.”

The Committees are a vital part of the Scottish Parliament. Holyrood only has one chamber – it has no equivalent of the House of Lords – so the Committees are responsible for making sure proposed new laws, and the work of the government, are scrutinised in detail. Committees can also conduct inquiries into issues within their policy area, calling witnesses including government ministers and officials, outside experts, and people who are directly affected.

The six Green MSPs were appointed to a total of 11 Committee places. The other Green assignments are:

  • Ross Greer (West Scotland) — European and External Relations Committee; Education and Skills Committee
  • Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) — Finance Committee; Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee
  • Alison Johnstone (Lothian) — Health and Sport Committee; Social Security Committee
  • Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) — Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee
  • Andy Wightman (Lothian) — Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee; Local Government and Communities Committee

You can see the full line-up for all of the new committees in the Scottish Parliament Official Report.

Policing the polis: Holding Scotland’s new service to account

This article was written in March 2015, and first appeared in the most recent edition, issue 41, of Democratic Left Scotland’s magazine, Perspectives. Copies are now available at Word Power, West Nicolson Street, Edinburgh. 

John Finnie - Amnesty InternationalEver since being asked to write an article, a couple of months ago, on Scotland’s now two year old police service, its already rancorous birth has been compounded by almost weekly controversies.

Since the new service started there has been a wholesale change in policing methods: armed officers have appeared on our streets attending routine non firearms incidents; and a significant number of Scotland’s children have been stopped by the police, asked to ‘consent’ to being searched, then having their mobile phone numbers requested.

I’m a member of the Scottish Parliament’s Police Committee and during evidence taking have been assured by senior officers that those unpopular, and in one instance legally questionable, practices had stopped only to subsequently learn that’s not the case. Whilst this information was not given on oath, as senior public servants it was reasonable to assume that we would not subjected to false, misleading or inaccurate statements.

So what is going on? Who is really in charge? And was the First Minister wise to recently give the chief constable a vote of confidence when many think she should be giving him his P45?

I will examine the background to Scotland’s police service, what checks and balances exist, whether the advent of the single police service heralded the police being the controversial political issue they have become, whether those controversies have another genesis, and what the future might hold.

The difficult birth of Police Scotland

Until fairly recent times it was widely accepted that the principal of policing by consent applied to the various constabularies discharging their duties in Scotland.

In April 2013, Scotland’s eight regional forces and ‘central services’, such as the Scottish Police College, were merged into a single entity, Police Scotland, since which time the police’s commitment to that concept has been seriously questioned by local and national politicians and the Scottish Human Rights Commission.

I fought for and secured improving amendments to the legislation and, as Chair of the Parliament’s Cross party Group on Human Rights, was delighted my proposed revised oath to be sworn by all new recruits; “I, do solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of constable with fairness, integrity, diligence and impartiality, and that I will uphold fundamental human rights and accord equal respect to all people, according to law,” was unanimously agreed by Parliament. The previous oath made no mention of “upholding human rights”.

The transition from 9 bodies to one was tortuously slow. Police are very rank- conscious and the preparatory work for the new service had exactly the same number of ‘work-streams’ as there were assistant chief constables so everyone got a new, albeit temporary, title. Self-interest among those individuals lead to inertia and it was only after the appointment of Police Scotland’s first chief constable, Stephen House, hitherto the chief constable of Strathclyde Police, that things got moving.

Stephen House is a former Metropolitan Police Officer who believes that a ‘performance culture’ is what is required to evidence sound policing practice. So, whilst some things, such as public reassurance, are very hard to quantify, it is easy to count the number of drivers charged with not wearing a seat belt or the number who have dropped litter. Now, as someone who owes their life to wearing a seat belt, I place very great store in educating the public about road traffic safety and, of course, I dislike litter. However, in each of those instances, if the offender is someone who will respond to advice, then much better that, rather than reach for their notebook, officers deploy their most significant power: the power of discretion. That way you have two citizens grateful for not being charged and two future potential witnesses to help the police. But if you give a clear focus on numbers then that’s what front-line officers will concentrate on.

The period running up to the amalgamation was frenzied. On paper at least, the scrutiny process was designed to be enhanced. Each council ward now has its own Policing Plan and each Local Authority its own Police Committee, rather than the joint board system of members for various authorities in all but two of the former forces. Overseeing it all, the Scottish Police Authority, a board of appointees with various backgrounds and officials with a variety of skills.

Arming the police

Until about 20 years ago, the Scottish Police service was always unarmed. Trained officers could be sent to incidents where firearms were needed, invariably the aftermath of an armed robbery, a murder using firearms or whilst on close protection duties for VIPs. About 20 years ago saw the advent of the Armed Response Vehicle: two highly trained uniformed officers in a vehicle on constant patrol. Within the last decade each of the forces had them but only Strathclyde and Lothian & Borders officers have the firearms carried overtly on the officers; Tayside’s ARV crews carried the weapons covertly whilst the other forces had weapons contained within a locked safe in the boot of the vehicle with withdrawal and use requiring the approval of a senior officer.

When a constituent contacted me saying they were concerned armed officers were patrolling on foot in the Inverness area I was initially sceptical but I made some enquiries and found it to be correct.

One of the changes that followed the move to the single service was the significant change I encountered trying to get replies to constituents’ enquiries. I wrote to the chief constable asking if there was a plan to put in place a correspondence protocol and was effectively told ‘we’ll decide what’s important’. For those reasons, rather than send off another letter which could go unanswered for months, I raised the matter through the Herald newspaper.

Police Scotland’s response was dismissive. I was told that only I and one other had ever complained. I sought and secured a meeting with the Assistant Chief Constable responsible for firearms and invited all my Highlands and Islands MSP colleagues to attend.

Now, almost a year and three official reports on we are told the ‘terrorist threat’ means our armed officers will retain their ‘standing authority’ to openly carry their firearms and they will still intervene in non-firearms incidents ‘using their professional judgement’. My request that the guns be returned to the safe in the car boot has been roundly rejected.

Stop and search

When used proportionately, stopping and searching citizens is legitimate crime prevention tool for the police. Indeed, common law powers of search and statutory powers relating to things such as drugs and weapons have always been a feature of effective policing. The laws relating to stop in search did not alter when Police Scotland came into being, nor did the threat level suddenly change what did alter was the police’s approach to stop and search.

One year in, we learned that levels of stop and search in Scotland exceeded those of the Metropolitan Police and New York Police Department.

More reports and explanations, and then the sad spectacle of Assistant Chief Constable Mawson, in the full light of the resulting publicity, explaining to Parliament that the ‘loss’ of “20,086 (search) records …. between May and July last year’ was because, ‘a computer programmer pressed the wrong button”. I’m not sure even he believed it, but within a few days the story changed anyway.

Whether terrorism, organised crime or drugs, the police like to tell us their operations are far from random, rather they are “intelligence led”. Of course, were that the case then we wouldn’t see communities targeted for stop and search operations resulting in four out of five stopped and searched having nothing on them, something the hapless ACC described as ‘a good success story’.

Later, having assured Parliament that searching of under-12s would cease, only for it to continue, the chief constable boasted he can and does ask for explanations from officers, bizarrely adding “that is quite an impressive development as far as human rights are concerned.” The ‘development’ that has seen young people stopped, searched, and had inappropriate details requested is ‘impressive’: an impressive disregard of human rights which will now stop.

Every profession has its own language and when we are told “there are no targets for volume of stop and search” yet are aware that each of Scotland’s Divisional Commanders has 23 key performance indicators to satisfy, you can see how scepticism can arise.

Policing the polis

Councillors on local authority committees have little to scrutinise and were cynically by-passed on the armed police issue whilst the Police Authority, initially distracted by a turf war about who’d be in charge of what, has been absent without trace on both the armed police and stop and search issues, belatedly and ineptly reporting events long since pored over by the press and politicians.

Since I became an independent MSP, the government no longer has a majority on either the Justice or Police Committees and seem to wish to characterise criticism of the police as ‘an opposition campaign’. I fear that misjudges the important scrutiny role expected of parliamentarians and, whilst we must all support the rule of law, that does not mean a blank cheque to an over-bearing policing style.

What do we learn from all of this? Well, it’s not that all the Police Scotland does is bad. The proactive work targeting serial domestic violence offenders has rightly been widely welcomed by Women’s Aid and others. Yet, even with that positive issue, rather than work with the legislative tools they are given, the police became active and vocal supporters of ending the age old Scots law convention of corroboration, the requirement for two separate sources of evidence to convict someone. That issue was eventually kicked into not very long grass by the Scottish Government, and will emerge again at the end of the year in time for proponents of this dangerous change to pontificate that some rights are more important than others.

Those opposed to the creation of the single service will feel vindicated that the series of events I have related show that they were right. I disagree; I believe they show a single-minded chief constable, unchallenged by his fellow chief officers, who isn’t held in check by his Police Authority, and who needs reigned in.

Sir Stephen House is quick to say he understands the need for him to be accountable; however, you do not need to be an expert in body language to read that’s not really his view.

I support local policing, and were I still a local councillor I would have been asking questions about armed officers on my beat. Why it was not picked up at local or national level? In fairness to the police they did tell the Police Authority. It was the last sentence of Paragraph ‘5.9’ of agenda item ‘8’: “Work is therefore well underway and on track in terms of Armed Policing provision for Day 1 when a standing authority for Armed Response Vehicles (ARV), Tactical Firearms Unit (TFU), airport coverage and other policing operations will be implemented.” Now, despite my intimate knowledge of the police service, I would not have read it as ‘routine arming’. Deliberate or not, it is now academic because, as with many other aspects of the controversies, the story has constantly changed with there being several versions of how it happened.

A colleague on the Police Committee recently asked the chief constable ‘if a witness in a police investigation changed their evidence as quickly and as often as that, they would be considered to be unreliable, would they not?’ Sir Stephen House replied ‘we would certainly be interested in why the story was changing. We are trying to explain why the story has changed.’

The story that is Police Scotland needs to change and, whilst that may only happen with the departure of the present chief constable, we must all remain vigilant and demand that our police service ‘uphold fundamental human rights and accord equal respect to all people, according to law’. I’ve not given up hope yet!

John follows up on armed policing

Today during a meeting of the Parliament’s Sub-Committee on Policing John attempted to tackle the continued confusion over when the standing authority to carry firearms was given to police officers in the Highlands.

The confusion arose in the weeks and months following on from John’s revelation that a small number of armed response officers were being sent out on routine patrol duties whilst carrying their side arms. Such routine duties included attending the Highland Cross Duathlon and supervising nightclub dispersal and members of the public even reported police officers on their lunchbreak carrying sidearms in supermarkets.

Initial reports after the practice emerged suggested that the change had been made in March 2013, one month before the advent of Police Scotland, by the out-going Chief Constable George Graham of Northern Constabulary. However such a change would have had to been notified to the former Northern Joint Police Board. It was made clear from many former members of the board that such a change was not discussed by the Board, contrary to the claims made at the time. From the Caithness Courier 18th June 2014:

“Chief Supt J Innes admitted Northern Constabulary did not previously make Councillors aware of a dramatic change in police to arm officers. In an earlier statement he said the former Northern Joint Police Board had been informed. But he now says members were aware police were “working towards creating a dedicated Armed Response Vehicle” but they were not aware of the police tactics involved.”

This statement makes clear that the decision was taken by Northern Constabulary without proper notification of the local police board. However on the 27th of June 2014 the Press & Journal published an article which referenced a letter from Police Scotland Chief Constable Sir Stephen House to Highland Council that said Mr House had taken the decision. This clearly cannot have been the case had such authority previously been given by Chief Constable Graham of Northern Constabulary.

It is vital that there is full and proper clarity about when the decision was taken to deploy armed officers on routine duties in the Highlands. That there is any amount of ambiguity is unacceptable and raises further questions about the practices of the senior management in both Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority.

John slams ‘mealy-mouthed’ armed police report

The Scottish Police Authority (SPA) report armed police has failed Scots by questioning only the presentation of the policy, not the substance, John Finnie has said.

The Inquiry into the public impact of Police Scotland’s Firearms Standing Authority follows on from Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary Assurance Review, published in October 2014.

Both investigations were prompted by concerns, which John raised in early May last year, about changed policing procedures which saw armed police officers attending routine incidents for which no firearms capability was required, the so-called ‘standing authority’.

Following campaigning by John, and with much public support, the police changed that policy in October so that armed officers would only be deployed to firearms incidents or where there is a threat to life. Whilst Police Scotland has taken Armed Response Vehicle officers from routine duties, the standing authority itself remains in place.

John, who is a former police officer and a member of the Scottish Parliament’s Justice and Police Committees, said:

“In its report, the SPA did little to examine the soundness and appropriateness of the original decision by the Chief Constable to give standing authority and, as a result, the public were understandably alarmed seeing unnecessarily armed officers patrolling our towns and villages. Instead the SPA focussed on public perception and made some passing remarks about Police Scotland’s communication efforts.

“It’s been clear throughout that Police Scotland displayed real arrogance by providing minimal information on this significant change on arming to the SPA. In turn the SPA failed the public by failing to give the matter the appropriate scrutiny. Sadly, rather than apologise, the SPA justifies this error by stating its ‘focus’ was on other matters. From an SPA point of view, it’s been everyone’s fault but theirs with mild rebukes to the Police, elected representatives and indeed the public.

“This report should have been very simple. Who was responsible for allowing the routine deployment of armed police officers on our streets and what steps have been taken to ensure no repetition?

“HMCIS suggested that rather than ‘operational independence’ we should apply the concept of ‘operational responsibility’. I prefer that term as it suggests engagement rather than a Chief Constable being able to charge ahead and do what they want without any regard to the public or their elected representatives.

“I understand that this report, which I was told would be available weeks ago, was delayed due to Police Scotland, who were given early sight of the report, demanding it be rewritten. I have to say that the whole tone suggests that is the case and I look forward to seeing Police Scotland’s official response to the SPA’s report within the correct timeframe.

“The public have no cause to be reassured by the mealy-mouthed words in this report nor the those of the Highlands and Islands Divisional Commander who only last week was complaining he couldn’t reach his agreed targets as he could no longer use armed officers.

“We must remain vigilant if we are to ensure Scotland retains an unarmed police service and not, as seems increasingly the case, becomes another version of the deeply flawed Metropolitan Police.”

Armed police review highlights lack of public accountability

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) have issued their report into the ‘standing firearms authority’ that saw police officers attending routine duties while carrying firearms.

This morning, before the full report was available, John welcomed HMICS’s announcement that their review “states that the impact of hte policy change on public perception was not fully considered by Police Scotland nor has there been a full and informed debate around the deployment of firearms officers to incidents and duties that do not require a firearms response.”

John said:

“As the person who first raised the issue of armed officers attending routine non-firearms incidents I am delighted that the second of the three reviews vindicates my highlighting public concerns.

“Although I haven’t yet seen the full report, I am pleased HMICS confirms that Police Scotland hadn’t ‘fully considered’ the public’s views when they changed their policy.

“I’m pleased too that HMCIS comments on the absence of a ‘full and informed’ debate.

“The recommendation for ‘better communication’ and a clear understanding of ‘operational responsibilities’ are helpful in ensuring we have what we should have had all along – a police service operating with public consent.”

“I am shortly due to give evidence to the third enquiry being held by the Police Authority and I hope that the welcome change by Police Scotland, removing armed officers from attending routine incidents, will see everyone get behind what I hope is a return to community-based policing.”

Success for John: police chief agrees to end everyday use of armed officers

John has welcomed Chief Constable Stephen House’s announcement that officers will no longer carry guns on routine, non-firearms incidents.

John, a former policeman, was the first MSP to challenge Police Scotland over the ‘standing firearms authority’ issued last April which saw armed attending on routine duties such as the Highland Cross charity race.

John has twice questioned Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill on how the decision to routinely arm officers was taken – during a Topical Questions session in May, and after Mr MacAskill’s statement on the issue in August. John also and raised the issue at the Parliament’s Police Committee (Official Report PDF) which took evidence from the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) and HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS).

In June, the Chief Constable dismissed criticism as “mischievous,” and described the change as not being “the big issue people say it is” [5].

But Police Scotland have just 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.”

John said:

“I welcome the fact that Police Scotland has responded to legitimate public concerns about armed officers walking about our towns and villages, and changed their firearms policy.

“It is a great relief that armed police officers will no longer be seen on our streets dealing with routine police business as this was having a negative impact on community relations.

“The Scottish Police Authority and the HMICS are still inquiring into police firearms deployment [7], and I urge everyone who is concerned about this to contribute to the SPA consultation.

“We still need to understand how this significant change, thankfully reversed, happened in the first place.

“In the meantime, credit to Police Scotland for getting their guns off our streets.”