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INSIDE TRACK: Why force is in the line of fire over routine arming of officers

THE row over armed police officers routinely attending to normal duties rumbles on in the Highlands.

Yesterday's Inverness Courier carried a picture of three on patrol on Saturday night, with a headline of "A row outside McDonald's? Send the gun squad".

It is likely Highland councillors will ask MSPs for assistance in establishing greater transparency about Chief Constable Sir Stephen House's powers and the system of checks and balances.

They don't have any fears about a paramilitary force being developed. With 275 officers, or 1.6 per cent of the force, carrying guns on routine duty, it would be a tall order. But at what point would increasing the number of permanently armed officers cease to be an operational matter and become an issue of policy?

The councillors are frustrated that Sir Stephen, to their mind, has not grasped the genuine public concern about armed officers on day-to-day duties in a low-crime area such as the Highlands.

There was an armed presence, for example, at the end of the 50-mile, coast-to-coast Highland Cross running and cycle race last month in which competitors take part to raise money for charity.

Sir Stephen's dismissal of those who have raised concerns as being "almost mischievous" hasn't helped. Perhaps he believed the criticism was from opponents of the single police force.

But the first person who raised the issue, as revealed in The Herald, was John Finnie, the Independent MSP for the Highlands and Islands.

He had been a police officer and full-time elected official of the Scottish Police Federation (SPF). He had also been a strong supporter of Police Scotland.

It is true that one of the leading voices in Highland Council calling for a review of the decision is that of Black Isle councillor David Alston, who as leader of the Liberal Democrat group was opposed to the merger of Scotland's police forces.

But anyone who observed the council debate on the subject would have seen the strength of feeling across all political parties and among independents.

The vote was 59 to nine to call for Police Scotland to review its decision. Local MP and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander backed that call and has invited Sir Stephen to Inverness to discuss it. That's a lot of mischief-makers.

The Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012 lays down the responsibilities of the Chief Constable. It also defines the functions of the Scottish Police Authority (SPA). These include "to keep under review the policing of Scotland" and "to hold the chief constable to account for the policing of Scotland."

So the SPA provides the key public interest link between operational and policy matters.

While Vic Emery, SPA chairman has conceded " it would have been helpful for communities and local councillors to have been made aware of these changes at an earlier stage", he did not accept that "a material shift in policy" had taken place.

But the public has seen the shift with its own eyes.

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Local government

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