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INSIDE TRACK: Twist in the tale of armed police officers

Nearly a week after Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill made a statement to MSPs on armed police officers, the issue still resonates in the Highlands.

According to a survey, 625 out of 1,000 people (62 per cent) did not think specialist firearms officers should carry their guns at all times. The size of the minority who thought they should, 381 (38 per cent), is a reminder of the degree of public trust in the police; this despite the furore surrounding the decision of the Chief Constable to issue a standing authority to 275 officers working shifts to be permanently armed, even when on routine duties.

The Scottish Human Rights Commission has raised concerns in a dossier to the UN. However, Mr MacAskill's statement was welcomed, particularly by MSPs uneasy about an apparent dismissal of local concerns.

But the Justice Secretary still ruffled some feathers in the north, not least when, in the debate following the statement, the clear impression was given that the change had been endorsed and accepted in the old Northern Constabulary area.

It has been established that the Northern Joint Police Board neither debated nor endorsed the change. The sole reference to it was in a report in February 2013, one month before the board and force were wound up.

This consisted of two sentences: "As part of the national policing review, Northern Constabulary is actively progressing Road Policing and Armed response capabilities, which will be in place in February 2013. Whilst this has been an aspiration for Northern Constabulary for some time, it will accord with and meet the approved proposals for the Police Service of Scotland."

As David Alston, deputy leader of the Highland Council observed: "You would need to be a mind reader to know that this referred to a change of policy which would allow armed police on to the streets." Meanwhile, Highland councillors believe they have found support for their argument that the previous practice of keeping the guns locked in a safe in the boot of an Armed Response Vehicle (ARV) still represents a responsible alternative.

This comes from the College of Policing set up south of the border in 2012 as the professional body for policing. Its guidance states: "A standing authority for ARV officers should set out whether they patrol overtly armed, or with weapons retained in secured arms cabinets in the ARV."

So the option of officers not permanently wearing side-arms is recognised. It also says a standing firearms authority may be provided "to officers engaged on specific duties where a threat and risk assessment deems this appropriate".

It gives examples of such duties: crewing armed ARVs; undertaking protection duties; involvement in specific escort duties; and "officers involved in prolonged operations for which the issue and carriage of firearms is an integral part of those duties".

The councillors do not accept what is happening on the ground in the Highlands is necessarily consistent with the spirit of these guidelines, which are designed to maintain the highest standards in policing.

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Local government

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