Police Scotland (Deployment of Firearms Officers)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 7th May 2019.

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Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

1. To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on reports that firearms police were deployed to routine incidents that did not require a weapon more than 5,000 times in the last year. (S5T-01644)

Photo of Ash Denham Ash Denham Scottish National Party

The vast majority of officers in Police Scotland are not routinely armed. The changes to the deployment model that were considered by the Scottish Police Authority in December 2017 and introduced last May followed extensive consultation by Police Scotland with a wide range of organisations as well as members of the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee. Those changes have allowed armed officers to utilise their core policing skills and attend incidents where speed of response or vulnerability is a key factor. The incidents that are being referred to equate to around 0.3 per cent of the total number of incidents that Police Scotland officers attend each year.

The deployment of armed officers is an operational matter for the chief constable and is overseen by the Scottish Police Authority. When I spoke today to the chair of the SPA, she informed me that the SPA board had already planned to consider the first year of the revised deployment at its next board meeting, which is scheduled to take place later this month.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

The minister mentioned the commitment to keep Parliament and the public updated, which is critical. We all recall Police Scotland adopting a fundamentally different policy in 2013—allowing firearms officers who were carrying weapons to do all routine duties—having deceived the SPA and not told anyone else.

In his evidence to the Justice Committee in January, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice said that the community impact of the deployment model continues to be assessed. At that point, Police Scotland was considering an independent evaluation by the Scottish institute for policing research. Has that been undertaken yet? When will it be published?

Photo of Ash Denham Ash Denham Scottish National Party

It has been undertaken and it is part of the substantive papers that will go before the SPA board for discussion at its next meeting, in May.

The decision to make the change was made in the interests of sensible use of police time to enable the police respond to incidents where speed of response and vulnerability are key issues. When I spoke to her this morning, the SPA chair, Susan Deacon, assured me that it is being done in a proportionate way.

It is important to keep in consideration that Police Scotland responds to about 1.8 million incidents per year and the responses to incidents that we are discussing represent just 0.3 per cent. A monitoring process is in place to consider the matter and Police Scotland reports to the board regularly—it does so quarterly. As I mentioned in my previous answer, the board had already planned to discuss the issue in more detail at the next board meeting.

It is important to restate that we are not routinely arming police officers. We have a proportionate approach that represents a measured use of police resource, and it is subject to the proper oversight.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

I assume that the report that has been prepared will be published.

Five of the eight legacy forces had the policy of firearms officers storing weapons in the boots of their armed response vehicles and undertaking routine duties unarmed. Weapons were accessed only when firearms were necessary or when the public or police officers were at imminent risk. However, the SPA refused to include that option in its consultation back in 2014, including only visible carriage, covert carriage and threat-to-life deployment. Does the minister believe that the previous model is worthy of further consideration?

Photo of Ash Denham Ash Denham Scottish National Party

This is a matter for the Scottish Police Authority, which has informed me that it is keeping it under review. It is due to substantively look at the issue at its next board meeting. It would obviously be up to the SPA to decide whether it wanted to change the model at all.

I reassure the member that we are not routinely arming police officers. Armed response officers attend just 0.3 per cent of incidents, and there are criteria for that. Police officers are sent out by a tactical unit in cases where speed of response is important. I am sure the member appreciates that, at times, speed of response is of the essence in cases such as missing persons and domestic violence.

The SPA is keeping the issue under review and Police Scotland reports to it on the matter quarterly.

Photo of Liam Kerr Liam Kerr Conservative

I have no objection to the nearest officers being able to attend incidents in order to speed up police response, but does the minister accept that some of those deployments would have been unnecessary if the Scottish National Party had not slashed front-line policing?

Photo of Ash Denham Ash Denham Scottish National Party

Liam Kerr will not be surprised to hear that I do not agree with that analysis

. The change to the deployment model was a measured approach in order to use capacity appropriately. As I have already said, it is used in only a small number of cases in which speed of response is important. In his question, the member alluded to the fact that he does not have an issue with the nearest unit of police officers responding to an incident, and I think that everyone in the chamber would agree that that is at times appropriate in order to keep our communities safe.

Photo of Fulton MacGregor Fulton MacGregor Scottish National Party

In her earlier answer, the minister mentioned missing people. How many missing and vulnerable people have been traced or assisted by officers deployed in armed response vehicles since their roles were extended last year?

Photo of Ash Denham Ash Denham Scottish National Party

According to information that was provided by Police Scotland, more than 3,500 missing and vulnerable people have been traced or assisted by officers deployed in armed response vehicles since their roles were extended. Those officers have also provided medical assistance at more than 600 incidents and dealt with more than 1,000 road traffic matters, including collisions, speeding and drink-driving offences.

Photo of John Finnie John Finnie Green

The minister will be aware that there is an obligation on Police Scotland to continually risk assess the situation and how it deploys officers. I am sure that she will join me in welcoming the reduction in firearms-related incidents, which we heard about recently. Will that reduction be reflected by a downturn in the number of officers who are being deployed? On the one hand, the Government says that it will not interfere in operational policing, but it is clearly giving the green light to more overt arming, including the use of Tasers.

Photo of Ash Denham Ash Denham Scottish National Party

To reassure Mr Finnie, and as I am sure he is aware, there are more than 17,000 police officers in Scotland and the number of armed response police officers is 524. That is only a small proportion, which I think equates to about 3 per cent of police officers. I am sure that the member will also welcome this morning’s police statistics that show that the number of police officers in Scotland is up by more than 1,000 since 2007. To further reassure the member, Police Scotland is keeping a close eye on the issue and reports on it to the Scottish Police Authority, which is reviewing the matter and will look at it in detail at its board meeting in May.