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Accountability and issue of armed police on our streets

Recorded crime in Scotland is falling, and falling fast.

Certain politicians can take credit for that, but not half as much credit as dedicated police officers. In 2012-13, the last period for which figures are available, there were 41,135 fewer crimes than in the year before. That represents a great deal of hard work.

You can bear in mind the difference, of course, between recorded crimes and actual crimes. You can worry, rightly enough, that sexual offences were an exception to the rule, increasing by five per cent to 7,693. You can note that the clear-up rate for all recorded crimes, while improving, still stood at just 51 per cent. You can ask questions about stop and search, and other policies besides.

It remains the case, nevertheless, that things are getting better. Either we are becoming more law-abiding as a people, legislation has improved, or the police are doing their job more efficiently than ever before. I suspect a combination of all three, in a version, never perfect, of those virtuous circles you hear about.

The crimes that create public nightmares and newspaper headlines are diminishing in number, sometimes spectacularly. Stop and search might count as a power too easily abused, but try telling that to victims of knife crime. For that matter, try telling voters that things are going wrong when crimes involving the handling of an offensive weapon - in Scotland, that generally means a knife - have fallen by 67 per cent in Glasgow and 60 per cent across the country since 2006-2007.

Some of the statistics can make you wonder how we lived not so very long ago. Back in 1992, for example, the number of "offences involving the alleged use of a firearm" was hovering perilously close to 2,000 annually. In 2012-13 there were 365 such alleged offences, and that figure, in turn, marked a 32 per cent fall from the 535 recorded in 2011-12. The numbers have been dropping year upon year.

The fact counts as one answer to some of the libertarian maniacs among our American friends who choose to interpret their constitution in ways that beggar belief. There was just one homicide involving a firearm in Scotland in 2012-13. There were only two attempted murders in which guns played a part. That, if percentages matter, was equivalent to 1.5 per cent and 0.6 per cent of the offences in question.

A gun crime is always a story, but the stories are becoming harder to find. Guns played a part in just 2.1 per cent of robberies in Scotland in 2012-13. There were 17 vandalism offences involving a firearm in that year, but the figure represented a 35 per cent fall on the year before. Less than 0.5 per cent of serious assaults, common assaults and cases of vandalism were firearms-related.

Since air weapons accounted for 47 per cent (171) of all alleged gun offences, and since this was also down on the year before, no special pleading is required on Scotland's behalf. We are not cursed by anything resembling a "gun culture". Firearms pose a very distant threat to most of us. The conjectured danger of terrorism aside, police officers are not often at risk. Guns are not our problem.

So why do we need to see armed police on our streets? Why those photographs of officers attending an incident at a McDonald's in Inverness, where badlands are few, with guns on their hips? According to whose assessment of possible threat is it necessary for four armed officers to question an Aberdeen motorist, or so the motorist claims, over an alleged traffic offence?

The routine arming of police in Scotland is not unprecedented. Before reorganisation, Strathclyde, Tayside and Northern allowed specialist officers to carry their weapons even when their use was not required. Since the emergence of a single force in April last year, however, police with guns have appeared across the country. And a lot of the country is unhappy.

Police Scotland would probably suggest that a little perspective is required. At the last count it had 17,244 officers. Of these, only 275 are armed specialists. Why should they not be carrying out normal duties when their skills are not required for firearms incidents? Given shift patterns, in any case, there is no chance that even 275 will be on duty at any one time. The risk of causing unease or offence - and the public does not seem concerned, say the police - is slight.

In fact, there has been a groundswell of complaint from councillors and other politicians, especially in the Highlands and Islands, where violent crime is even less of an issue than it is elsewhere. There is concern, too, about the manner in which this situation has come about. Kenny MacAskill, the Justice Secretary, cites "operational control". In effect, this means that a sweeping change in policing culture has taken place thanks to one man - Sir Stephen House, the Chief Constable.

Professor Alan Miller, chairman of the Scottish Human Rights Commission, argues that operational control is an inadequate explanation for a change imposed without the scrutiny of public bodies.

Fifty nine Highland councillors have supported a motion by deputy leader David Alston calling on Sir Stephen to reconsider. Police Scotland are thinking about it, but seem little inclined to alter course.

Why is that? Because specialist officers are needed for ordinary duties and cannot be seen without their handguns and Tasers? If the crime statistics showed a high and rising level of threat, that might make sense. The figures show just the opposite. In fact, as Professor Miller suggests, "introducing guns to standard police duties, even where officers are fully trained, increases the presence of lethal weapons on Scotland's streets".

London's experiences ought to be a warning. Innocent individuals such as Jean Charles de Menezes are shot and killed "in error". The Metropolitan Police, in its wisdom, then decides that those campaigning for justice need to be placed under surveillance. Patently, this is an outrage, but when armed officers become commonplace, these things happen.

The issue of operational control is a tricky one for Mr MacAskill. If he or any other minister attempted to take day-to-day charge of policing there would be hell to pay, and rightly so. But the policy of force amalgamation pursued so avidly by the SNP government has led to a result many of us feared. One man is in all but unfettered charge. One style of policing is being imposed on places that are law-abiding even by Scotland's recently impressive standards.

All of this because of staffing issues? That makes no sense. All of this because of "intelligence" at Sir Stephen's disposal, or because of a "just in case" attitude that is refuted by crime statistics? If there is the shred of an idea that deterrence is served by armed police then Mr MacAskill should stamp on it now. Then he can deal with the issue of accountability. We need some.

Police Scotland should think of it this way. Those statistics are a credit to the force. Much goodwill comes with them. It would be foolish to forfeit all that and more rather than own up to a mistake.

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