The National:

MORE than half of Scots police officers want to carry guns as routine, according to 1919 Magazine, an online journal that reports on justice issues in Scotland.  Cue instant media headlines. 

The original source data actually comes from a Scottish Police Federation study completed by 1698 officers, so it should be reasonable accurate. We might note, though, that the Federation is interested (naturally) in putting political pressure on the Scottish Government to ensure police officers are looked after in Budget fights. There’s a bit of politics going on here rather than an urge to take to Scottish streets with Glock-17s.

The actual SPF poll indicates that 53% of the officers surveyed ranked handguns in their top five priorities for personal protective equipment. In fact, tasers were ranked highest, with 84% of respondents saying they “would like” them. Body-worn cameras also ranked highly. Before we all get too alarmed, I’d say this was a well-aimed nudge at the Scottish Government rather than a call to arms. The SPF study also notes that 47% of respondents do not want to carry handguns, and a whole third say they would not want to be trained in their use.

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I’m more alarmed at the finding that 22% of police officers were assaulted on duty in the three months prior to the study – figure that rises to fully 40% in the previous 12 months. Is there some crime epidemic we don’t know about?

The latest official crime figures for Scotland relate to 1919-20 (we are about to get an update). They cover recorded crime which obviously fails to catalogue all wrongdoing but is fairly accurate as long as we look at trends rather than hard numbers. Between 2018-19 and 2019-20, recorded crimes remained almost unchanged, increasing by only 1% from 246,480 to 246,516. Even then, that could be due to changes in how crimes are categorised. In fact, recorded crime remains at its lowest level seen since 1974.

However, there’s a caveat. Non-sexual crimes of violence (about 4% of all crimes) jumped by 16% between 2018-19 and 2019-20, from 8008 to 9316. But on analysis, that increase is down to the recording of 1681 new crimes designated under the Domestic Abuse Act, which came into force in April 2019. Other crimes of violence actually decreased by 5%. So, the police are not facing an epidemic of violence on Scotland’s (relatively) placid streets. Non-sexual violent crimes actually peaked around the 1991 recession. In 2019-20, the national rate of recorded crimes of violence was 17 crimes per 10,000 of population.

Another interesting piece of evidence is that there were 2585 emergency hospital admissions as a result of assault in 2018-19 (the latest numbers available) of which 665 were due to assault with a “sharp object” (i.e. a knife). This represents a formidable decrease of 43% in emergency admissions due to assault since 2010-11. This is not to say Police Scotland officers do not face life-threatening dangers in confronting drug dealers and drunks. But the evidence is hardly conclusive that the threat is so existential they need guns to defend themselves.

Would arming Scottish police officers protect them or the public? Doubtful. Every year, police in America shoot and kill more than 1000 people, with Black citizens suffering a disproportionate rate of casualties. US police shootings are more a cause of, than a reply to, violence on US streets. Meanwhile, in Iceland, one in three people own a gun yet gun crime is extremely rare. Icelandic police go unarmed except for pepper spray. An incident in 2013 was the first and only time in history that an Icelandic police officer shot and killed a suspect.

Gun violence was - and is - a cultural phenomenon as much as a criminal one. In many small European nations, household gun ownership is high, yet recorded shootings are virtually tiny. Scotland’s police deserve the best Personal Protection Equipment money can buy, but it remains the case that arming officers on a routine basis will only increase their vulnerability in the long run. Those Glocks should stay in the cupboard.