Highlands & Islands

Police will not be 'routinely armed' says Kenny MacAskill

Firearms officers in Inverness Image copyright Northpix
Image caption Concerns have been raised over the deployment of armed police

Scottish police will not be routinely armed, Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill has said.

Mr MacAskill made a statement to MSPs defending the policy of some police officers carrying handguns on patrols.

He said there had been a nationwide roll-out of a policy that was "endorsed" by three former forces.

The Scottish Conservatives said the use of armed police was "disturbing", while Scottish Labour accused Mr MacAskill of having an "indifferent attitude".

The Scottish Liberal Democrats called the justice secretary "deeply illiberal".

Police Scotland has said the deployment of a small number of armed officers was needed "to address a risk".

Previously, politicians from the Highlands and Highland Council have raised concerns about the deployment of armed officers in their region.

Petitions opposing the policy have been started by Lib Dem MP Danny Alexander and the Inverness Courier newspaper.

Chief Constable Sir Stephen House has said a routine review of the policy would take place in September, but Police Scotland has also said that the operational decision was unlikely to change in the near future.

Analysis by BBC Scotland's Home Affairs Correspondent, Reevel Alderson

Out of a total police strength of 17,318, only 275 officers routinely carry guns while on duty.

But even this number does not reflect the number of armed officers on the streets at any one time, since shift patterns and leave reduce it further.

The officers carrying weapons are members of the armed response unit, ready to attend a firearms incident immediately.

Police say when they are not deployed on active firearms duty, they carry out normal policing duties - although they still carry their side arms.

The policy was introduced by the former Strathclyde force in 2008, and followed by Tayside in 2009 and Northern Constabulary just before the single force was created in 2013.

Police say the areas covered accounted for 60% of the Scottish population.

"The current standing firearms authority is not new," MacAskill said.

"Three of the former constabularies - Strathclyde, Tayside and indeed Northern - had endorsed this position prior to the inception of the service."

Critics have pointed out the widening of the policy comes after figures for 2012-13 showed firearm offences had fallen by 32% to the lowest for 10 years.

Homicides, attempted murders and robberies in which firearms were involved were all down too.

Mr Alexander said: "This is a deeply disappointing statement from a minister with a deeply illiberal record as justice secretary.

"It will further fuel anger about the routine use of armed police officers.

"Kenny MacAskill had a chance to show he was able to listen to the sincerely-held concerns of many in the Highlands but instead he has once again turned a deaf ear.

"I hope the chief constable will show himself more willing to listen to people at the review in September."

'Fundamental change'

Scottish Labour's justice spokesman, Graeme Pearson, said: "I am shocked and dismayed at the cabinet secretary's indifferent attitude towards this fundamental change to the nature of policing."

He added: "There has been significant concern expressed from both the public and the media on this matter but the SNP government has refused to acknowledge or address this and has instead attempted to stifle debate on the issue.

"The complete lack of transparency and accountability on routinely arming officers is absolutely unacceptable and the cabinet secretary must ensure that the Scottish Police Authority is enabled to fulfil its duty in holding Police Scotland and their decisions to account."

Scottish Conservative justice spokeswoman Margaret Mitchell said: "The fact that hundreds of police officers are carrying firearms while responding to everyday duties is deeply disturbing for the public.

"These fears have been heightened by the unacceptable lack of transparency and accountability in decision making by Police Scotland on this issue in particular.

"It has been consistently acknowledged that someone who carries a knife is in danger of using that weapon or becoming a victim of knife crime.

"It's an interesting analogy with the arming of police, because there is a real apprehension that if police officers routinely carry a weapon, that weapon will be used in a manner other than that intended."

Strathclyde Police, Tayside Police and Northern Constabulary allowed specialist officers to carry guns routinely before the creation of a single force in Scotland.

'Unexpected threats'

Police Scotland has adopted the approach across the country since its launch in April last year and it has included the use of a small number of firearms officers in the Highlands.

Following a meeting with Highland councillors last month, divisional commander Ch Supt Elaine Ferguson said the policy was unlikely to change.

She said armed police deployments were an operational decision made by the chief constable and there was not a requirement to consult publicly on the move.

"I cannot say it will never change, but it's there to address a risk that is there," added Ch Supt Ferguson.

Mr MacAskill previously spoke on the issue in the Scottish Parliament in May.

He said it was necessary for trained firearms officers to be readily available to respond quickly to "urgent and unexpected threats".

Mr MacAskill said Police Scotland has 275 firearms officers - 1.6% of Police Scotland's personnel - and they were deployed on a shift pattern basis.

He added: "Consequently, only a small number will actually be deployed across our communities at any one time."

The justice secretary also said that the police authority and police investigation and review commissioner could review the deployment of firearms officers.

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