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MacAskill on Roll-out of Armed Police Policy

Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill has made a statement defending a recent change in national policy allowing some police officers to carry handguns while on patrol in Scotland.

The use of armed police has understandably raised widespread concerns, particularly when the decision to roll-out the policy across Scotland appears to have been made by the chief constable of Police Scotland without explicit public consultation or parliamentary scrutiny.

MSPs questioned whether such an important decision, that had caused substantial public disquiet, should be a matter for the chief constable alone, and whether there should be parliamentary debate over such important operational decisions.

In response, MacAskill stated: “When we debated the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Bill in the Parliament a couple of years ago, it was clear that operational independence was paramount. It was made clear by members in all parts of the chamber that our democratic structures require that the chief constable has operational independence and is free from political interference.”

However, he went on to state the safeguards that were put in place to protect the Scottish people from any abuse of police powers. These include the Scottish Police Authority (SPA), that holds the chief constable to account, and the Justice Sub-Committee on Policing, which is able to scrutinise all aspects of policing.

The chief constable has also agreed to provide quarterly reports to the SPA and sub-committee on the number of officers deployed on firearms duties. A commitment was also made to notify the SPA and Justice Secretary should the number of officers on duty with firearms exceed 2 per cent of the total officers in Scotland.

MacAskill concluded: “I believe that the public understands and accepts the need for a small number…of police officers to be authorised to carry firearms and for the chief constable to have operational independence over their deployment and use. However, I also understand the concern of the public that we do not slip into a situation where officers become armed as a matter of routine practice, which would clearly go beyond the operational into matters of policy. I give the Parliament and the public my assurance that that will not happen.”

After making his statement in Parliament, MacAskill emphasised to MSPs that: “in the main, police officers in Scotland routinely go around unarmed. That is the norm.”

Many MSPs remain unconvinced by the statement, with reports that Lib Dem MP Danny Alexander and the Inverness Courier newspaper have started petitions opposing the policy. However, the operational decision is unlikely to be changed in the near future.

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