BY MICHAEL RUSSELL
There was widespread shock in the Highlands and Islands this week when it emerged that Police Scotland routinely deploy armed officers to non-violent incidents.
A spokesman for the force’s northern division, based in Inverness, was unable to say why this policy has been introduced in a low-crime area. Despite being pressed on the matter, he would only say: “The deployment of armed policing officers, where necessary and proportionate, has been a longstanding feature of policing across Scotland, including within the Highlands and Islands. Where there is a requirement for a specially trained armed response, this can be deployed to the area as and when required.”
The concerns were initially raised by Independent MSP John Finnie, formerly of the SNP and also an ex-policeman. The Scottish Government’s own statistics showed that in the Highlands and Islands last year the number of serious offences in which a firearm was “alleged” to have been involved was one per cent.
This week, Ross, Skye and Lochaber MP Charles Kennedy also criticised the move.
“I am far from persuaded that this development sits easily with the long-established grain of Highland policing practice over the decades,” he said. “And I’m sure that it will stir unease for many individuals and communities. I do hope that a cool, professional operational rethink can be conducted – and the sooner the better.”
David Thompson, SNP MSP for for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch also expressed concern that police firearms policy now allows Armed Response Vehicle officers to “routinely carry” firearms openly on their person when there is no imminent threat.
He added: “I understand Sir Stephen House arguing that ARV officers have to take time to arm if there is an incident. However, the Police response which is that ARV officers now patrol armed when there is no immediate threat is going too far.
“Violent crime in Scotland is at a near all time low, not least because, unlike elsewhere in the UK, the Scottish Government has maintained police numbers in Scotland. Further, crime in the Highlands and Islands is at such a low level it is one of the big reasons why people choose to come and live and work here, something clearly undermined if innocent shoppers and street goers see officers carrying firearms as if there is an incident about to happen. It is not beyond the wit of man to find a middle way between Sir Stephen’s concern for his officers safety and the wider peace of mind of Highland folk.”
Earlier in the week, Chief Inspector Charles Armstrong had said: “All officers within specialist services, which includes armed policing, are deployed in support of their colleagues in territorial divisions. They have their part to play in keeping people safe and that includes addressing concerns within communities and responding to calls. I can confirm that armed response officers within Police Scotland are routinely armed and have been since 1st April 2013.”