A TEENAGER who sparked a major firearms incident after pointing an air rifle and threatening to fire at armed police in Shetland has been sentenced to three years behind bars.
Samuel Barlow, 16, has been in a young offenders’ institution for more than four months following the incident, which took place in September 2014.
He previously admitted to four charges of assault and one of threatening and abusive behaviour when he appeared at Lerwick Sheriff Court in December.
When he reappeared on Wednesday, Sheriff Philip Mann sent Barlow to prison for actions which had caused “the utmost fear and alarm to those who you confronted”.
Sheriff Mann said it was a highly unusual case for any court to deal with. Although it had been a “very difficult decision” owing to Barlow’s young age and the mental health difficulties he has faced while growing up, in order to protect the public he saw no alternative to custody.
The five charges related to pointing an air rifle at police officiers and members of the public. Two of those included threats to shoot the police officers, who did not know that he was wielding an air rifle rather than a more deadly weapon.
The sheriff was unsure whether he intended to carry out the threat, but in a criminal justice report Barlow accepted that “at one point near the end of the incident you came close to opening fire”.
“None of them knew until it was all over that what you had in your possession was an air rifle rather than a firearm,” Sheriff Mann said. “Over and above the fear and alarm that you caused, you caused considerable expense to the public purse which has had to bear the cost of a full scale police operation to bring the incident to a close.”
He continued: “I think that perhaps now you realise how close you yourself came to being shot and perhaps killed. To be in the position of deciding whether or not to deploy a weapon against another person must be a highly stressful and unenviable situation to be in, even for trained police officers.”
Sheriff Mann praised police for their “professionalism and restraint”, commending their handling of a “delicate and dangerous situation”.
“It’s not with any great sense of joy that I sentence you to prison,” he told Barlow. “I have had to think long and hard about it.”
Barlow had first been seen walking with a rifle near the Scord quarry, on the outskirts of Scalloway, on 23 September last year.
He had taken to the hills before resurfacing in the Westerloch area of Lerwick later the same afternoon. There, he walked through several gardens, threatened local people and aimed his rifle at police officers as they sought to negotiate a peaceful resolution.
Defence agent Tommy Allan told the court that he did not wish to “minimise in any way” the very serious nature of his client’s actions.
But Barlow had pleaded guilty as early as he could and had subsequently shown remorse and an understanding of the “magnitude of what he had created”.
A detailed psychological assessment, prepared with the cooperation of Barlow’s mother, showed he was a vulnerable teenager who had suffered a mental breakdown last March.
Allan said there were difficulties with mental health in the family. Barlow had developed a “sensitivity to criticism” and was someone who found social situations difficult to cope with.
That made using the internet a useful refuge allowing him to communicate with others, and he had become involved in an online relationship with a girl he had never met in person.
The court heard that Barlow had tried to provide help to the girl, who was herself troubled, but it appeared he was subject to “a fair amount of control and influence” from her.
Allan said that on the day in question the girl had told him she was going to take her own life. Barlow blamed himself for this and left his home in Wester Skeld, setting off a chain of events culminating in a standoff with armed police.
His client had not set out to cause harm to others and the incident had not resulted in any tangible injuries. Barlow appreciated that he was very lucky to be alive.
Allan said Barlow had engaged with everyone who has tried to help him while he has been in custody. He felt his client would be better able to address problems including anger and anxiety if he was not behind bars.
Sheriff Mann said he had considered handing over sentencing to a higher court, but the use of an air rifle rather than a firearm meant the potential for injury was reduced.
Having paid very close attention to the various reports on Barlow, it was clear he would benefit from the help of different agencies to address his problems.
The three-year prison term was reduced from four years to reflect his guilty plea and backdated to 24 September when he was first taken into custody. Barlow could be eligible for release after half of his sentence in around a year’s time. Upon release, Barlow will be made subject to a supervised release order for one year.