In December 2012, Police Scotland announced that (when they came into existence the next year), they would set up armed response units all across Scotland. The reasoning seemed sound; serious questions were asked when taxi driver Derrick Bird killed 12 people in a massacre in Cumbria. The slow police response was blamed on the lack of armed police outside of major population centres despite the fact you’re far more likely to own a gun if you stay on a farm than in a tenement. There are a tiny number of armed incidents in Scotland, so the reasoning goes that, if lightning were to strike, it wouldn’t necessarily be outside the Buchanan Galleries or right in the middle of Princes Street.
And so, almost unnoticed, we now have 400 armed police officers across Scotland. There were no calls for an increase in the number of armed police nor any clear need for them, given that violent and armed crime have been in steady decline for years, without lots of packing Polis.
It wouldn’t be considered smart in these austere times to employ the Stornoway SWAT Team, to sit in an office, rocking back and forward for the next 300 years, wondering if they’ll ever get to shoot anything, so the officers are instead sent out on routine patrol. Precisely because there is no need for them, they’re constantly downgraded to backfill for any old job, armed.
In the Highlands & Islands, there have been reports of increased armed presence, with gun touting officers seen attending domestic incidents. Responding to questions from independent MSP, John Finnie, the Highlands & Islands police confessed to having deployed armed officers over 100 times since last April. Nationally, it’s now been confessed that police have been attending road traffic accidents, public order calls, conducted missing persons searches and carrying out first aid, with guns.
The most worrying single statement in this whole affair came from Assistant Chief Constable, Bernard Higgins. In a written response to John Finnie he said , “The standing authority [to carry guns] also allows them to deal with an immediate threat as a result of an unexpected encounter.” So we now arm the Police just in case. You never know what might happen when you’re out and about, so best to make sure you can shoot it.
This leads to one question, who called the armed police?
There hasn’t been any pressure from the general public, if anything it’s been pointed out that people feel a lot less safe when they encounter armed officers. The Scottish Government’s response has been glib, at best. Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, declared that it was up to Police Scotland how they use their resources, as though someone had ordered too many post-it notes, and even said most Scots were “satisfied” with this militarisation of the force. There was no prior discussion in Parliament about whether we wanted to arm more police routinely. Today, in a statement which means quite literally nothing, MacAskill declared, “there is no routine armed police force is Scotland” but that armed officers are “routinely available.” So, that’s, erm, something anyway….
It transpires, the entire project seems to have been authorised by Police Scotland Chief Constable, Sir Stephen House. Sir Stephen is a Met man by trade, with a background is in firearms, undercover policing, fighting London criminal networks etc. He tried and failed to get the top job at the Met and settled for Polis Scotland instead. His consensual approach was perhaps best demonstrated when, as head of Strathclyde Police (with help from none other than Bernard “unexpected encounter” Higgins), his officers turned a few people having a drink in the park into a national incident by wading in and provoking a “riot” (it wasn’t a riot). Sir Stevie is technically allowed to do what he likes with his resource, including his Armed Response Vehicle (ARV) crews. The problem comes when the mere need for capacity to deploy armed police in rural areas translates into cops with guns on our streets, guns that no-one except the Chief Constable seems to actually want.
The arguments made to defend this position by Police Scotland offer little in the way of reassurance. The first point made is that the policy of routinely arming officers was operated in Strathclyde, Tayside & Northern before Police Scotland, so this more of a national roll out than a change of tactics. Suddenly finding out we previously had some sort of postcode Russian roulette doesn’t mean the national expansion of this policy shouldn’t be properly discussed.
It’s not clear why, in sending ARV crews armed to bog standard jobs, they are somehow more ready for when things kick off. Police Scotland claimed that previously, the crews had to drive back to the station, sign out their guns and then deploy. It could certainly be disputed that officers who’re dealing with public order offences, sympathising over your smashed wing mirror or standing in a long queue at Greggs are “ready to deploy.” However, various commentators have noted that in the past, many ARV crews just kept their guns in a locked safe in the boot of their vehicles while on routine jobs and were given authority for a senior officer to deploy as and when required, as opposed to stoating about brandishing a handgun at someone who‘s dropped their chewing gum, without this 10-20 minutes of “driving back to the station” that’s now being claimed by the bigwigs at Police Scotland HQ.
Introducing weapons into public order situations is a recipe for disaster whether that’s at demonstrations or when clearing out a pub. The visibility of weapons could inflame a situation which was previously resolved with a raised eyebrow or a folded arm, regardless of whether a gun is ever drawn.
The risk of guns falling into the wrong hands, including the hands of the wrong Police officers under the wrong circumstances, is a risk we don‘t need to take, if all we seem to be protecting ourselves from is an “unexpected encounter.” There is a much greater risk that we turn that into “an unexpected encounter with a weapon.” Trust in the Police is unlikely to be won down the barrel of a gun but it could be lost that way very, very quickly.
There is no need for more weapons on the streets of Scotland – the only beneficiaries of the expansion of an armed police force will be those who deal in guns and morticians. If it is the case that armed police have been a regular feature in Scotland’s cities for some time, then this national expansion is an opportunity to ask why the previous policy of the majority of Police authorities – that a police officer carrying a gun was something that needed to be authorised by a senior, for a specific purpose – wasn’t favoured by Police Scotland and its Met wannabe chief. Does Sir Stephen House’s background as a London Robocop mean he’s the most qualified person to be deciding whether we need police in rural Scotland to be armed, just in case? The Government and Parliament must intervene, to reverse this unnecessary and dangerous militarism before it‘s too late.
More from the Cop Shop:
Sauna raids and silenced sex workers
Blow the whistle on police harassment
Confessions of a not proven bin raker
Kelvingrove: How a street party became a Royal fiasco
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Some factual errors seem to detract from this article – a damned shame. However, I may be wrong. If so, apologies. But and for example, can I clarify if there is any such “beast” as the “Highlands & Islands Assistant Chief Constable” in Polis Alba (Police Scotland)?
As an aside, but given the real politik of UK govt smear (and veiled or not so veiled threats) in the referendum process (as well as their imperial legacy of violence in their other former colonies, eg, Kenya), might not an armed branch of the national police force make sense? A potential gendarmie for self-defense purposes should the UK Kipper types – to wit, Baroness Jay – seek to usurp by any other means the democratic will of the citizenry of Scotland?
The concept is not unique nor historically unfounded in Scots annals. For example, Scots self-defense militia pre-, during, and post-Burns’s time? United Scotsmen mirroring their Irish, French, and American compatriots spring to mind.
Having said that, this development needs to be rigorously subject to the democratic will of the citizens of Scotland and enshrined in a codified constitution.
Many thanks for this article. Will share.
Oops, you’re correct on that, so that’s fixed.
And this isn’t an armed branch of the police, it’s armed police on ordinary jobs – I wouldn’t necessarily support either but they are two different things.
I am a former police officer from Grampian Police who left the force in 2011. I worked exclusively (but extensively) within the city of Aberdeen during my four years in ‘The Job’ and knew many of the firearms officers within the city (and, had I remained in the police, would most likely have applied to become one of them).
There were a number of things that I felt that Grampian did not do properly with its armed response officers (there were jobs where they really should have been utilised but divisional officers or unarmed plain-clothed officers were used instead and some of us were counting the days until a cop was killed for lack of armed backup – but these incidents were very rare) and they really should have had two Armed Response Vehicles on the go at any one time rather than the one they did operate (as a minimum of four officers are needed to properly contain a building, for instance). But the fact was Grampian did not have a problem with criminals using firearms on anything like a day to day basis so the ARV was used as a traffic unit 99% of the time.
The officers in that vehicle did not carry arms on their person but did have immediate access to pistols and carbines in a locked safe in their car. At the beginning of their shift they were formally instructed of the rules and regulations they had to follow (I worked from the same office as them from time to time) and while the procedure that was invariably (in my experience) carried out on ‘live’ incidents was that a senior officer (not that senior, the control room inspector was high enough up the food chain) did instruct them to arm and disarm before and after each job. But the officers had total control over arming if a situation went pear shaped around them and did not need to wait for instruction from on high.
Theoretically it is possible that one day a life could be lost due to Scottish officers NOT carrying guns on their person at all times but it needs to be remembered that routinely armed police officers all around the world get shot and killed by criminals so the reality is that being armed is unlikely to save a life in the worst of circumstances, especially in Scotland where gun crime is pretty much non-existent outside of Glasgow. Cops in America routinely go into situations expecting people to shoot at them; cops in Scotland don’t. The difference in mindset is far, far greater than the difference in equipment and training given to the officers.
There is an absolute need and requirement for the Scottish police to have access to readily deployable firearms in the hands of specialists officers but there is NO requirement, even in Scotland’s worst areas, for firearms to be carried to any incident that does not require that level of force being utilised. A friend and colleague with 20 years in the job once said to me, “I’ve never been to an incident where the presence of a firearm would have improved the situation”. I had a fraction of his service and would have to agree.
In my opinion, policing in Scotland has gone downhill since Police Scotland came into being and I am glad to be out. Not specifically because there is now one force but because Chief Constable House and his Strathclyde acolytes are over-turning the local practices which worked well and remaking the force into an imitation of the Metropolitan Police. I have never understood how police forces in Scotland could be headed up by officers who had spent all their lives in English forces; the laws are different here but more importantly, the ethos of policing is, for a large part, very different. We are losing that distinction.
Ordinary armed constables on routine duty, absolutely not; nor the utilisation of armed officers on all but a tiny percent of incidents and under the full spotlight of the law (and under the strictures of a codified, internationally compliant and even ground-breaking Scots constitution coming down the line, I fervently hope).
Don’t fully agree that they are necessarily two separate issues, but caution and thorough reflection required all round.
Personally, I favour a voluntary civilian militia/self-defence force fully-trained and subject to – absolutely subject to – a popularly mandated
Anyway, an argument for another day.
Shared your thoughts.
Thank you again.