You have to wonder why it was any different.
“Firearms officers attached to Armed Response Vehicles will now only be deployed to firearms incidents or where there is a threat to life,” Police Scotland’s Chief Constable, Stephen House, announced last week. In reverting to the old policy, he underlined the demerits of the new one.
Introduced across Scotland in April 2013 — a month earlier in the Highlands and Islands, for some bizarre reason — House used his ill-defined ‘operational independence’ to authorise the deployment of armed officers to unthreatening situations, such as this year’s Highland Cross charity race. In doing so, the Chief Constable pushed the limits of one of the cornerstones of modern policing — public consent.
Put simply, this means most of the citizenry agree to the laws of the land being enforced by uniformed fellow-citizens. What they did not agree to in this instance was the stealthy introduction of lethal weaponry into the everyday operation of that covenant. That was clear from the outset, when Highland MSP John Finnie blew the whistle on the practice. It is down to him (and the subsequent outcry) that the policy has been reversed.
Sanity has prevailed. But questions remain. They were articulated last week by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.
Certainly, the 2012 Act gave “direction and control” over Police Scotland to Stephen House, but there was no accompanying definition of what “operational independence” actually meant, said COSLA; in any case, it isn’t so easy to “dismiss as purely operational” the deployment of armed officers on regular duty.
COSLA’s criticism continued. Referring to a single line in a March 2013 document covering the standing firearms authority, Scottish council leaders said it was “debatable whether the true operational meaning of this is clear”.
The fact that all oversight of policing was removed from councils with the abolition of joint police boards is also a bone of contention. As accountabilty is a key strand of policing by consent, its diminution can only serve to erode public trust.
Now that the guns are off our streets, all of the foregoing should still be addressed. “We still need to understand how this significant change, thankfully reversed, happened in the first place,” said John Finnie. Indeed we do.
Few would deny that police officers need access to firearms, or that specialist units are required in certain situations. Even then, as we’ve seen over the last few years, things can go horribly wrong.
COSLA intended to air all these issues with the force itself, and with the Scottish Policing Authority and HM Inspectorate of Constabulary for Scotland as part of their ongoing inquiries. This was their agreed position as of 30th September. We hope that the Chief Constable’s decision to scrap the policy, taken just a few days later, won’t mean that they drop all of their valid concerns.
One of the best ways of preventing a future chief constable from subverting accepted practice would be to ensure sufficient scrutiny before a decision is made. An ideal forum for this could involve bringing together councillors and senior police officers, at regular intervals, to discuss matters of operational importance. There could be one such gathering for each of Police Scotland’s 14 sub-divisions. They could be called something like ‘joint police boards’. It’s a crazy idea, but it just might work.