POLICE chiefs are to hire a panel of ethical advisers as they face mounting controversy over firearms and stop and search.

Senior officers at the new national force are in talks on creating a moral "sounding board" for their policies and actions.

Their latest move came as Police Scotland was told it would face twin inquiries by watchdogs into the ­heightened visibility of armed police officers in recent years.

Loading article content

Both HM Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMICS) and the Scottish Police Authority (SPA), the oversight body for the force, announced comprehensive reviews of the policy.

The proposed Ethical Advisory Panel (EAP) for Police Scotland is expected to be chaired by a former chief officer but include both experts and interested parties to discuss issues like tasers, high-visibility armed patrols and the stop and search of under-16s.

A Police Scotland spokesman said: "The establishment of the EAP was discussed with the executive and consultation has been undertaken that has included partners and stakeholders with a particular interest in this area of police service delivery. Further discussion will take place with a view to establish how best to take forward the proposal."

The spokesman added that the ­executive - the team of chief officers and senior officials under Chief Constable Sir Stephen House that effectively runs the force - was "supportive of the pro-active development of an EAP that suits the needs of the organisation and draws on current best practice".

The Herald understands former Lothians and Borders Chief Constable Paddy Tomkins has the profile of the kind of former officer who would be suitable for the post.

However, former senior officer Graeme ­Pearson, Labour's justice spokesman, said he was not certain that Police Scotland needed another "talking shop".

He said: "I would have anticipated ethics should be at the heart of everything the Authority and Police Scotland deliver, and the public oversight of that work would provide proper accountability and judgment. It will be interesting, therefore, to see the remit for such a panel alongside an explanation of how it will work."

Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokeswoman Alison McInnes MSP, a long-standing critic of the single force, said: "The continued controversy surrounding Police Scotland policies, including stop and search and armed police, demonstrates the need for those at the top of the national force to ensure their demands of officers are always compatible with human rights and ­ethical best practice.

"If this signals a recognition among senior officers to further reflect upon the full implications of their policies then it is a welcome step."

Both Mr Pearson and Ms McInnes also welcomed the reviews by HMICS and the SPA.

The two bodies said they would carry out 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".

Standard operating procedures for Scotland's armed officers gradually changed between 2008 and 2013, with local councillors previously responsible for policing failing to notice. The new police scrutiny regime will ­examine public concerns that have emerged since the creation of the single force.

As revealed in The Herald this year, the issue was highlighted when independent MSP and former police officer John Finnie became aware that armed officers were carrying weapons in side holsters rather than in locked boxes in their vans. This policy - routine in England and Wales, where there are more police with guns - was introduced in the Northern Constabulary area weeks before the national force came in to being. Armed units, meanwhile, were also charged with ­dealing with non-armed response incidents, increasing their visibility.

Mr Finnie said: "The important question that will remain is whether the Chief Constable [Sir Stephen], 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 review is a start."

Deputy Chief Constable Iain Livingstone welcomed the reviews. He added: "Police Scotland will also review the operational guidance provided to officers regarding the functions they perform when not engaged in firearms duties and consider how we may improve our engagement with communities."

The HMICS review will be independent of the SPA inquiry but its report will the given to the SPA and discussed at a public meeting in October.

The SPA inquiry will then draw together both its own evidence and that of the HMICS assurance review, and report with findings and recommendations to the full authority at its public meeting in December.