In October last year, in response to growing criticism of the deployment of armed police, Chief Constable Stephen House announced that armed officers would only be deployed when “firearms offences are taking place, or where there is a threat to life”.
Five months on, this claim has proven hollow.
Reporting to a justice subcommittee on policing, Assistant Chief Constable Bernie Higgins revealed:
“Since October 1, armed response officers have involved themselves in 1644 instances where they have proactively engaged with members of the public. That will include charging people with offences which included dangerous driving, drink-driving and other such like offences.”
Mr Higgins remarks were confirmed this weekend by Deputy Chief Constable Iain Livingstone. However, Mr Livingstone claims that armed officers were never deployed to incidents and only became involved when officers “pro-actively engaged” with members of the public.
Mr Livingstone highlights several incidents in which armed officers intervened, including an attempted suicide attempt and a chance sighting of a stolen car. However, Mr Higgins evidence reveals other routine incidents, including drink driving, pub brawls and public disturbances.
Hamstrung by Cuts
Police Scotland is a service hamstrung by cuts. Since the establishment of the national force, its budget has received a temporary boost to the tune of £70 million a year to ease the transition. This funding will cease next year and additional budget cuts are expected, too.
Peter Squires, Professor of Criminology & Public Policy at University of Brighton, believes that budget is the main reason we are seeing more armed officers on the street. He said:
“I’m sure this is an economy driven measure, just as it is in England, police forces cannot afford to have trained officers waiting around only for certain types of events (armed incidents) to occur. So the armed officers go on the routine response rota, dealing with routine incidents.”
With more to do and less resources with which to do it, many argue that it is unreasonable to ask armed police officers to sit in a room, waiting for an incident that may never come.
If a police officer sees an incident that requires their response, they ought to respond to it.
However, arming officers is an move heavy-laden with consequences; it is not something that should be decided on the outcome of a spreadsheet.
Gill Marshall-Andrews, chair of firearm campaign group Gun Control Network, said:
“The basis of good modern policing is intelligence and trust. It is clear that the routine arming of police with guns and Tasers will lead to a deterioration of both these things. The public will no longer feel the police are on their side if there is now the possibility, however remote, of being shot by any police officer. They won’t trust them because they find guns intimidating.
“Arming the police is a one way street. It will never be reversed. In this country we have a unique and valued relationship with our police and we must protect that. Of course some officers need firearms training and there are some situations in which they will need to be armed with guns and Tasers but this must always be the last resort. The Police Federation are not serving their members well by arguing for them all to be armed routinely. They are in fact putting them, and us, in danger.” [Source: Gun Control Network]
The relationship between police and public in this country has slowly developed over the course of history. If we lose it, is not something we can easily restore.
A Strained Relationship
Last year, in response to Police Scotland’s claim of widespread public support for armed officers, the Daily Record conducted a poll of its readers. Their survey recorded 60 per cent of respondents in opposition of armed police officers [Source: Daily Record].
A survey conducted three months later by the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) showed 53 per cent of respondents in favour of routinely arming officers [Source: BBC]. The SPA also collected evidence from a further 200 individuals and organisation during a call for evidence. Almost all expressed concerns regarding routinely arming officers on the street.
In the last year, public opinion has been shaken and swayed further by the Charlie Hedbo and Copenhagen shootings. Isolated polling shows that these events may have galvanised support for an armed police force, but it is unclear whether there will be any sustained influence.
Mr Livingstone underpins his defence with claims of shifting political and social landscapes. He said:
“Scotland is not immune to [terrorism]; in addition, we live with the threat posed to communities from serious and organised crime, including groups which have access to firearms.
“We respond in a number of ways including having ready access to a small number of police officers who can provide a specialist response when needed. I think most people in Scotland are glad of that.”
Contrary to Mr Livingstone’s claims, gun crime at home is actually sitting at a 34-year low. Considering the lack of identified threats, one has to question whether Mr Livingstone’s explanation is plausible.
Mr Squire believes the true motivation for arming police forces is one of health and safety.
“[T]he police argue for armed response because of gun crime and terrorism, but they disproportionately shoot people with mental health issues, people who are on drugs or who are drunk. It’s not just police officers encountering ‘gun crime’, it is any dangerous violent / unpredictable offender response. For the police it is an occupational Health & Safety issue.”
For health and safety to so directly influence the course of policy seems ill-advised. Considering the central tenets of British policing – policing by consent, the use of minimum force, the promotion of co-operation and the maintenance of a positive relationship – this a decision that must be well considered and thought out.