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The Highland Line: why review of armed police is so welcome in the Highlands

The announcement that HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority are to join forces to look at the issue of armed police was a major surprise. But it was certainly a welcome surprise in the Highlands.

After Kenny MacAskill's statement to MSPs at Holyrood last week, most thought that would be that. Or, at the very least, months of campaigning and argument lay ahead for the likes of Highland councillors, who have been outspoken in their opposition to police officers being permanently armed, and the lack of public scrutiny of that decision by Chief Constable Sir Stephen House.

But then news came yesterday from "two of the bodies responsible for oversight of policing in Scotland", as they described themselves.They were launching a "complementary programme of review and inquiry into the decision of Police Scotland to give a small number of firearms officers a standing authority to carry firearms".

That small number is only 275 out of about 17,300 police officers working in shifts throughout Scotland. But the problem is - when they are on duty, those among this small group will always be wearing side-arms.

This is regardless of whether they are attending incidents that require guns, or those which most definitely do not. Their appearance at the likes of the Highland Cross charity run/cycle and a baker's shop in Brora have been well rehearsed.

It hasn't gone down well with the public, although Police Scotland insist they didn't receive any representations from concerned citizens until the issue was highlighted in the media - which of course started in The Herald.

The HMICS assurance review, which apparently had been requested by Sir Stephen among others, will be conducted independently from the SPA scrutiny inquiry. However its report will be published and provided to the SPA to allow for consideration at its public meeting on October 29.

For its part, the SPA will be assessing what the level and nature of public concerns are over the current Police Scotland policy on armed officer; how effectively Police Scotland are engaging with the public and considering the impact on communities; how Police Scotland can best address any public concerns and provide necessary reassurance to communities, and; what, if any, lessons might be learned around how operational decisions with wider strategic or community impact are communicated to nationally and locally

Crucially, this initial phase of SPA work will include a number of public evidence sessions to allow SPA members to hear directly from those with a view.

It was good to hear the response of John Finnie, the independent Highlands and Islands MSP who first raised the issue of change in policy on armed officers in May. Without him, how long would it have been before we noticed that every so often armed police officers would turn up where we least expected them?

Mr Finnie said there was reassurance that the community impact of armed officers attending routine incidents would be looked at .

There were also references to public confidence in the police and the public voice, which were very important. "We police by consent." So he was content there would be a thorough investigation. "But the important question that will remain is whether the Chief Constable, who thus far at least, has appeared disinterested in public opinion, will respond to the outcome.

"I think we will have difficulties if he doesn't. But let's be positive and say this is a start.The public concerns about policing are being looked at and are going to be addressed."

A former policeman, he deserves credit for the way in which he has gone about highlighting the issue.

Members of Highland Council can also justifiably feel some satisfaction at the SPA/HMICS announcement. They had democratic legitimacy and got the bit between their teeth on this issue. They really ran with it more than any other body, as did the local media in the Highlands.

Nobody was arguing that police shouldn't have access to guns. Only that they should be kept locked in the boot of armed response vehicles as they had been for many years. Few understand why this had to change in the Highlands.

So the inquiries are being seen as something of a victory achieved by local pressure, but of national significance.

Certainly there is something quite reassuring that the SPA and HMICS have recognised the level of public concern and have acted, effectively within three months.

What would be most welcome is if, between them, the inquiries could help the public and politicians understand what constitutes an operational decision, which the Chief Constable must be free to take without political interference.

Where do operational matters end, and those of policy begin? Nobody really has a clear handle on that yet. Most accept that senior officers must be able to decide when to deploy armed officers. But is that really the same as having some armed at all times?

Whether the inquiries will make any difference remains to be seen. But at least the speed with which SPA and HMICS have responded is a most welcome departure from the glacial approach normally adopted when it comes to public concerns over the conduct of the powerful, be they government ministers or chief constables.

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