Twenty-four years ago I joined Lothian and Borders Police Force, making an oath to “faithfully discharge the duties of the office of constable”.
Even then there was a debate about whether officers were properly equipped to defend themselves and others. For me, then as now, the answer does not lie in routinely arming our police.
The wording of the oath I took with such pride is important. It reinforces the nearly two-centuries-old idea of policing by consent laid out by Sir Robert Peel in his nine police principles. It’s a principle which, to this day, has guided us against routinely arming our police in contrast to much of the rest of the world.
Peel said:“The police are the public and the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare”.
So it’s extremely worrying that a departure from this founding principle has happened quietly in Scotland. There has been no opportunity for public debate, no chance to say no. It was a decision taken at police headquarters. But it is a choice which fundamentally changes the relationship between police and communities. The change moves us away from the idea that police officers operate with public consent and collaboration.
Chief Superintendent Mark Williams, Local Police Commander for Edinburgh, has argued that the routine arming of even a small number of officers is “justifiable” and “necessary” because “serious incidents are sufficiently common in Edinburgh that it’s not a disproportionate or unjustifiable response”.
It’s worth pausing for a moment to examine that claim.
Look up Edinburgh Division on the Police Scotland website and it proudly boasts that the city was ranked recently by YouGov as “one of the top five safest cities in the UK”. In 2013-14, officers in Edinburgh only had cause to present or discharge weapons, including Tasers and baton rounds, 13 times. There are nine such incidents for this year – roughly one per month.
Undoubtedly our police officers face very real dangers, but serious incidents make up a minority of police call outs. Are we really prepared to arm our officers routinely to deal with a tiny proportion of cases? As an officer I didn’t believe that we should and as a MP I certainly don’t.
The far-stronger case is to issue non-lethal options like CS or pepper spray to frontline officers. By doing that we answer the threat they face on our behalf without destroying Peel’s fundamental principle.
Some people, including serving officers, will disagree. I respect that. But we need to have that conversation. So whatever we decide to do, whatever we accept as a society as being reasonable, it must only happen following a proper public debate and it must be proportionate to the threat officers face on our behalf.
Mike Crockart is Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West and served as a police officer in the Lothian and Borders force for eight years