Yesterday’s statement in Parliament regarding the police use of guns patrolling our streets on routine duties is one of the most important issues of our time. If we fudge the democratic oversight of such matters we slide from a police service dedicated to community involvement to a police force independent of proper democratic oversight.
The Cabinet Secretary has powerfully demonstrated his position. He washed his hands of any duty of governance and has decided to leave these decisions to the police – Policing by consent in Mr Macaskill’s vocabulary is merely a by-line. He shows support for the Police by abdicating genuine accountability and transparency to a system incapable of delivering on it.
His argument for such negligence? – ‘Operational independence’.
Such a grand concept is intimidating to challenge. But like the Wizard of Oz, once faced, it turns out to be shallow in its application to this vital issue. Operational independence is a concept alluded to in the Royal Commission on Policing (1963). As a concept it has grown in stature over the decades to become a principle clung to by numerous Chief Constables in dubious circumstances to defend their decisions. It is a principle, not fully described in law or with any agreed understanding. As a result, elements of that independence are fudged and ill defined, hence the argument about arming our police officers.
Let us be clear. I have yet to hear anyone argue against the current provision of armed response vehicles on patrol containing pistols, rifles and ammunition for use in emergencies by trained police officers. Nor, though uncomfortable at their presence, have I heard any real challenge from the public to the visible armed presence of police officers at our airports. The issue under challenge is the Chief Constable’s authority to extend the right of police officers to bear firearms whilst on the routine patrol of our communities in circumstances where no known threats are in evidence.
This is a new departure and though limited in application to a few hundred police officers now, once allowed to pass, it can and some might say, will, be extended further by a Chief Constable without consultation and agreement. It means the end to any claim for our police service to be described as unarmed. The police have no such powers to act as of right. Any exercise of powers by a Chief Constable must be rational, responsible, proportionate and lawful to pass oversight and withstand the scrutiny required to deliver good governance and thereby public consent.
Mr Macaskill has failed to apply this test. Instead he has sought refuge in the land of the bigot, asserting criticism of his lack of a commitment to duty is in fact a criticism of hard working police officers. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The presence of loaded firearms in our communities heightens the risk of accident, injury and tragedy for both the police and the public. We have already had officers discharge firearms and tasers in circumstances causing concern, injury and unfortunately death. The impact of such incidents is immeasurable for the members of the public involved. But what it is overlooked is that for the individual police officer – placed in such circumstances by executive decisions – discharges and shootings can have severe consequences for them and their families. We therefore have a duty to ensure that when officers are in our midst armed with guns, the need for that responsibility has been fully explored and justified to protect both public and police.
This is also where Mr MacAskill has failed. When he received his private, some say secret, briefing on the arming of officers a year ago, he should have raised questions about approval and accountabilities with the Chief Constable and his Police Authority. The Cabinet Secretary should have satisfied himself that Authority Board members had fully explored the case for arming police officers on routine patrol, tested that case and formally approved the changes at a public meeting of the Scottish Police Authority duly subject of a comprehensive minute. Only then can we be confident that at some point in the future incidents involving the police use of firearms are not subject of calls to identify who allowed this to happen!
We live in a country experiencing a 39 year low in crime, gun related crime has been slashed and we have 1000 additional officers on the streets. It is therefore difficult to understand the threat assessment provided to support change. However, I hope that these changes will be reviewed and a decision arrived at to provide effective cover without the need for armed officers being engaged in routine incidents.
The sight of a Scottish police officer with pistol in holster dealing with a beggar in a city centre, a bus incident, a disturbance in a fast food outlet or indeed doing his shopping is not one that I, for one, want to see.
Operational Independence seeks to ensure the police act without fear and favour in their investigations and it should allow the police to respond to immediate unusual challenges without the need to convene committees. In policy matters, however, a police service committed to its community should wish to see Police Authority approval of changes before implementation. Such processes will ensure, for a national police service, accountability at local and national levels and provides a confidence in the one true principle of policing by consent.