Mark Williams: Armed police keeping streets safe

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The issue of armed police officers has hit the headlines across the country in recent days. Amid the debate, I believe it’s important to outline to Evening News readers some of the facts about this important area of policing.

Mohammed Abdi’s murder in Willowbrae almost exactly a year ago was a horrific but, thankfully, rare case of gun crime impacting on Edinburgh. It represents a stark reminder to everyone that providing a very small number of dedicated armed response vehicles is essential.

Of the 17,234 officers in Scotland, only 275, including supervisory personnel, are dedicated firearms officers. Those 275 – operating across the whole of Scotland – are deployed on shifts and so, in Edinburgh and the wider Lothians and Borders, this means that we routinely deploy two armed response vehicles 24/7. These four officers are a vital part of our overall policing response and are essential to provide a swift and effective response to any armed incident.

These local officers have a “standing firearms authority”. This allows them to carry a handgun and a Taser when they are on patrol. It means they don’t have to wait for senior officers like me to give them the approval to arm themselves at times of crisis.

In the past, officers had to stop on their way to an incident and arm themselves – a process which can take up to 20 minutes. Now, officers can go directly to a crime scene and provide an immediate response.

Let me be clear, I don’t want officers sitting in offices and waiting for calls to come in. I would rather they were out and about, visible to local people and providing a deterrent to criminals.

There has not been a single call or complaint from the public about firearms officers in the 13-month period since Police Scotland went live, and I am pleased to say that there have been no guns fired by police officers in the Capital during that period either.

Firearms officers are highly skilled and trained but they never want to have to reach for their weapon. When they are on patrol these officers will often deal with other less serious incidents that don’t involve firearms. This additional support to local policing is really welcomed by me and I know that in recent weeks they have made several fantastic arrests.

An example of this in practice was at the beginning of March, when armed officers on routine patrol attended a report of two men acting suspiciously around parked vehicles in the south of city. The men were traced and found to be in possession of stolen property, screwdrivers and a torch. One was apprehended on three warrants and the other was wanted in relation to housebreakings. These officers were the closest to the scene at the time of the call and, had they not been able to respond, there is every chance these suspects would not have been caught.

There are countless other examples that could be quoted from across the city. In all of them it is abundantly clear to me that officers who volunteer to carry firearms are carrying out a difficult and dangerous job very professionally. They are committed to responding quickly to serious incidents but also add their support to our local policing efforts, such as tackling antisocial behaviour, crime and violence.

Every officer in Police Scotland is highly trained and communities are at the heart of all we do. Without the ability to use all of our officers at their optimum capability, we would be leaving communities disadvantaged.

Chief Superintendent Mark Williams is police commander of the Edinburgh City Division