Calls to get armed police off Edinburgh streets

The arming of police on the streets has caused disquiet. Picture: Ian Rutherford
The arming of police on the streets has caused disquiet. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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CITY politicians today united to condemn the routine arming of police officers on patrol in the Capital.

They branded Chief Constable Sir Stephen House’s move “over the top”, warning it could lead to an increase in gun crime and insisted the change of policy should be debated in parliament rather than treated as an operational matter for police.

It emerged in May that hundreds of police officers across Scotland had been authorised to carry handguns on routine duty – even though there may be no obvious threat to them or the public.

It is the latest controversy sparked by a switch in policing methods since the creation of a single Scotland-wide force.

Writing in the Evening News today, former SNP MP Jim Sillars branded the guns policy “outrageous” and called for Sir Stephen to be “reined in”. He said: “Policing by consent, the fundamental principle that has guided police forces throughout time, is being set aside,”

Edinburgh’s Tory group leader and former policeman Cameron Rose said: “We have gone overboard. It is part of the macho, over-the-top authoritarian style of the new chief constable. It’s a step too far in Scotland. We need armed police for special circumstances and we accept that, but the level of armed policing now seems to have gone beyond that. There are many people who are uneasy about the direction in which Police Scotland has taken us.

“We have always operated in the principle of minimum force, but we seem to be moving away from that.”

He said the issue was first and foremost a matter for the Scottish Police Authority.

But he added: “It is also a matter of public concern so should be subject to debate in parliament.”

SNP councillor Mike Bridgman, who chairs the council’s police scrutiny committee, said the issue would be raised with Edinburgh police commander Mark Williams when the committee meets on Friday.

He said: “If criminals are aware the police are carrying guns regularly, will that mean there will be more gun crime? We have survived for centuries without having to do this and the police have been praised throughout the world for that. We have kept the gun culture out of our country.

“It alarms me there has been no consultation about this and the chief constable has taken it upon himself.

“We’ve always had armed response units but we’ve managed without officers routinely carrying Glock 17s and we’ve not had an over-abundance of crimes with guns.”

Firearms incidents recorded by police across Scotland fell by almost a third from 535 in 2011-12 to 365 last year.

The controversy over armed officers was fuelled by pictures of policemen with guns strolling through the centre of Inverness, one of the safest cities in the UK, and another officer with a Glock 17 semi-automatic pistol on his hip while shopping in Paisley.

Green councillor Melanie Main said armed officers needed to be deployed in certain circumstances and to be on standby, but that was different from being routinely armed.

She said: “Many residents will be alarmed at the prospect of more police on our streets being routinely armed and Greens share this concern.”

Edinburgh Northern & Leith Labour MSP Malcolm Chisholm said he had been contacted by constituents concerned about the issue.

“This is a profound change and it should certainly be discussed in parliament because it is a policy matter rather than an operational one,” he said.

“It is right for politicians to take a view on it, not least because our constituents are very concerned.”

Lothian Tory MSP Gavin Brown said: “Arming the police during routine patrols is quite a radical departure from previous police procedure and there needs to be some democratic oversight. If police are to be armed for specific scenarios, that’s an operational matter, but a wider departure is something society as a whole would want to debate.”

Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill has repeatedly insisted the deployment of armed officers is an operational matter for the chief constable.

Deputy Chief Constable Iain Livingstone said: “A standing authority to have a small number of trained armed officers available to all parts of the country has been in place since April last year. Of more than 17,234 officers, 275 – less than two per cent – are highly trained specialist officers who are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to keep people safe.

“When they are not carrying out their specialist duties they are there to support their colleagues in delivering the policing priorities set by local communities.”

‘Criminals will start carrying guns’

Natasha Thomson, 39, Rosewell: “Police are in danger often and we don’t respect them enough, especially teenagers, so it might earn them more respect.”

Heather Baxter, 28, Dalry: “I don’t agree with this idea at all. Countries like the US which arm the police have shootings and problems, and Britain has low levels of gun violence.”

Lars Aaron, 23, city centre: “It’s not necessary. I’m originally from Sweden and haven’t seen much crime living here. I feel safe and comfortable walking these streets. Even current terrorist threats are temporary and it seems like overkill.”

Sean Hunter 19, Dalry: “It’s a very bad idea as it doesn’t stop crime in the US. Criminals would just start carrying guns.”

Firearms are rule, not the exception

MOST major police forces in Europe, as well as the US, Canada and Australia, routinely carry firearms.

Apart from Britain, the key exceptions are the Irish Republic and New Zealand. In Norway, officers carry arms in their cars but not on their person.

Most uniformed Gardai in Ireland are not armed. However, certain units, including regional support units and the emergency response unit, do carry firearms.

Police in Sweden have been regularly armed since 1965.

Almost all officers carry a service pistol– a SIG Sauer handgun – as well as an expandable baton and pepper spray.

All Danish police officers are trained in, equipped with and must carry a personal police pistol when on duty. The standard service handgun is the H&K USP Compact 9mm pistol.

In France, the two national police forces are both permanently armed.