Highland MSP John Finnie does a bit of time travelling…
It’s the summer of 2017, and a hot summer’s night in the Highland capital of the newly independent Scotland.
Many of the population have been drinking all day. The town centre party gets out of hand and the armed police officers intervene.
The previous month an officer who had been surrounded by a hostile crowd had fired warning shots in the air. Tonight, a group of young men under the influence of drink and drugs are determined to get the trophy of a police gun.
One of the officers is surrounded and kicked to the ground. In fear of his life, he draws his side arm and fires ‘a warning shot’. That shot imbeds in a teenage boy’s chest. A night of chaos ensues.
Monday morning and the inevitable press enquiry is ‘how could this happen?’
In the late spring of 2014, complaints were received by a Highlands and Islands MSP about changed procedures for Armed Response Vehicle Officers. At that time there were only two officers, or was it four? The MSP took the matter straight to the press and a debate of sorts started.
The establishment closed ranks behind the decision, taken without reference to the public or their elected representatives, which saw ‘standing authorisation’ given to those few officer to wear a side-arm at all times even attending road accidents, domestic incidents and monitoring crowds leaving licensed premises.
“Yes, they’re armed and have been for some time,” the police casually advised an astonished public.
That MSP sought unsuccessfully to raise the matter in the parliament with the First Minister. The following week he raised the matter in the Chamber with the Cabinet Secretary for Justice.
The Cabinet Secretary was a former firebrand left wing lawyer. He had opposed a single police service and was a stout defender of Scots law requirement for corroborative evidence, dispensed with in 2015. He told Parliament this was a decision of a now retired Chief Constable, taken in the final month of the old Northern Constabulary.
Sceptical that the retired chief constable would wish his bequest to the Highlands and Islands to be deployment of armed officers, the MSP eventually secured a meeting with the pleasant Assist Chief Constable responsible who’d failed to respond to a detailed series of written questions he’d posed.
In keeping with his view that this was a major constitutional issue, the MSP had invited all Highlands and Islands parliamentary colleagues to this meeting. They accepted, police made decisions based of the assessed risk to themselves and the public whilst the police accepted that they should assess the impact of their decisions on the public.
The MSPs were assured all assessments had been undertaken. The police said they were “highly sensitive documents” not for public consumption. The MSP felt great frustration with this ‘catch 22’. Self-determined confidentiality meant there was no public scrutiny of the factors giving rise to that changed policy.
As predicted, a now less benevolent police regime saw no reason for any consultation before significantly bolstering the number of armed officers routinely patrolling our streets.
The signs had been there but few listened. That same MSP had raised issues about the single service using ‘riot vans’ in the Highlands. He was told the van had been there all along. It had but it didn’t have the big metal windscreen shield which was fitted after amalgamation.
Community relations were further eroded when the ‘fight against organised crime’ hit landward Scotland. The public had been told criminal gangs were trying to infiltrate police ranks. A firm line was to be taken on any business operating as a front for the Mr Bigs.
The centrally-based squad started ‘going in hard’ on licensed premises and taxi operators. Commentators recognised that this ‘hard’ approach may be appropriate in isolated instances, when backed by a risk assessment. The on-going campaign against rural pubs in the Borders and taxi firms in the Islands couldn’t be justified and was fuelling alienation.
Police boards had been deferential and were dissolved. Those who fought hard to have a scrutiny role for the parliament were no longer MSPs. The parliamentary authorities who had opposed a Police Committee in the first place saw no need for political oversight. No Police Committee convened for the fifth parliamentary session.
The police take delivery of a fleet of armoured vehicles and water cannon next week. The funeral of the young man killed was an emotional affair with significant public disorder thereafter, an early test for the new full-time riot squad now based in the Highlands.
Everyone now agrees the police need protecting. Perhaps just as well those guns were issued without anyone being asked way backed in 2013.
The Cabinet Secretary for Justice is due to report to Chief Constable next week. He will visit the new suite of offices built of the ground kindly donated by the property developer ‘with close links to the police’.
That’s how it all happened.
Courtesy of The Scottish Socialist Voice