Police Scotland’s credibility undermined in armed cops affair


Rozzers and arms: the Scottish Police Authority is finally getting its act together having initially been missing in action on the issues of stop and search and armed policing

The appearance of armed police on Scotland’s streets was first spotlighted in a Voice article by John Finnie MSP last year. Here, he reports on where we stand now... In a liberal democracy, it’s ultimately elected politicians who are charged with holding senior public servants to account. Scotland’s chief constable is one such public servant and many wonder why, given the levels of scrutiny that exist, holding him to account has proved so challenging. Local authorities are the first layer of the checks and balances, with councils having a variety of committee structures to scrutinise the local commander. However, whilst not wishing to disparage former council colleagues, thus far at least, such scrutiny as has taken place has failed to bother the police who continue with their centralist plans regardless.

Then there’s the Scottish Police Authority (SPA), a collection of paid officials and appointees, some of whom are past or present local authority councillors. The SPA is finally getting its act together having initially been missing in action on the issues of stop and search and armed policing.

Finally, there’s the Parliament’s Justice Sub-Committee on Policing, Members uniquely drawn from the four main parties, the Justice, Local Government and Equal Opportunities Committees.

From day one when the chief constable announced he’d dispense with several thousand police support staff to, only a matter of minutes later, retract the comment, the police have been mired in almost constant controversy and the fault for that lies squarely at the door of the man paid a quarter of a million pounds annually to run it, the chief constable.

During one evidence session at the Parliament the chief constable advised the Committee that his officers were doing a ‘fabulous job’. I asked him if he was doing a fabulous job and he replied that it was for others to decide.

I’m told by the police that my constituents in Lochinver face the same threat level as those in Leith and that means having armed officers, except of course that there are no armed officers in Lochinver. In recent weeks I have asked whether, ‘in the interests of openness and transparency’ the SPA could make available to the Police Sub Committee all the versions of its report into the public impact of Police Scotland’s Firearms Standing Authority, overtly armed officers to you and me.

The SPA said they’d considered my request then “concluded that to release multiple early drafts would prejudice substantially, or be likely to prejudice substantially, the effective conduct of its public affairs”, no surprises there then. I asked for release of the various versions of that important report for a very good reason. I know Police Scotland were unhappy with the initial report and ‘demanded changes’ so I was, and remain, keen to establish to what extent their intervention changed the final version.

The SPA have been keen to assure me they ‘have set a very high level of public transparency for this armed policing work by publishing not only our inquiry report, but also an independent analysis of evidence gathered, an independent academic study, and an independent public attitude survey,’ so my formal Freedom of Information request that the versions of the report be released will see if that’s really the case.

I know that the SPA has already instructed the company which undertook their survey not to release all the information gained.

The SPA has been rattled by the justified public criticism it has received over its failure to scrutinise Police Scotland. Now, it has placed great store in what they see as the mechanism to prevent a repetition of that bad press, Police Scotland’s ‘Communications and Engagement Strategy.’

The strategy means that Police Scotland will advise the Police Authority in advance of any proposed changes likely to be of significant public interest. The SPA say better engagement ‘may … build community confidence and trust.’

I think their cautious use of the word ‘may’ is wise because this process has a fundamental flaw as it’s Police Scotland that decides what’s ‘significant.’ We already know that armed officers on our streets and blanket stop and search in some areas weren’t considered ‘significant’ issues at all by the chief constable.

Now, Police Scotland announced on 1 October 2014 that it would no longer send Armed Response Vehicle officers, who carry sidearms and Tasers, to routine calls and incidents. However, once again, it was Inverness where questions were raised about an armed officer walking through a busy railway station simply because he was giving someone a lift and I know that’s not an isolated issue.

Clearly, the police have got themselves in a pickle. Unwilling to climb down and lock the guns back in the boots of the cars where they should be, they are leaving it to officers’ individual judgement whether to get out their vehicle to help with routine incidents or not.

The SPA will have to work hard at raising its credibility and the botched armed police report hasn’t helped, however, if you are looking for an honest broker, step forward Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary in Scotland, (HMIC) Derrick Penman, himself a former chief officer.

Mr Penman’s successive reports on stop and search and armed policing have laid out the pros and cons of each practice, analysed their application and highlighted the shortcomings including the need for meaningful engagement with the public, sound work with a clear evidential base with no unwillingness to criticise constructively.

Scotland has over 17,000 officers, a very small percentage of whom are armed, the very large percentage of whom do great work in our communities.

Despite the outcome of the General Election, Scotland will remain a liberal democracy, its parliamentarians will make the laws, its courts will interpret the laws and its police service will act as public servants and be scrutinised accordingly.

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