From Al Pacino in Serpico to Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, Hollywood has long been interested in tales of police corruption. It’s hardly surprising, then, that journalists in search of a good story should have their interest piqued by the work of police internal affairs departments.
Since last year, Police Scotland’s Counter Corruption Unit (CCU) has been at the centre of a growing controversy after it emerged officers broke data guidelines when they spied on journalists and their sources without first seeking judicial approval.
Set up in 2013, the CCU has the task of investigating corruption in the public sector, while Police Scotland’s Professional Standards department looks into complaints against the force’s own officers. However, it was the CCU which began an investigation last year after details from the inquiry into 2005 murder of Emma Caldwell were leaked to the press.
Using the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa), the CCU carried out “subscriber checks” to establish which police officers owned phones that had been used to feed information to reporters.
The Interception of Communications Commissioner’s Office later found that Police Scotland had been “reckless” in using the legislation without first seeking the approval of a judge, contravening guidelines which had only recently been introduced.
Following months of pressure on the CCU – notably on its head, Detective Chief Superintendent Clark Cuzen, to appear before the Scottish Parliament’s justice committee – reports at the weekend suggested Police Scotland is preparing to disband the unit.
According to a report in a Sunday newspaper, Police Scotland will close the CCU after the Holyrood election and hand many of its responsibilities to independent investigators.
The issue was raised in parliament yesterday, with Liberal Democrat MSP Alison McInnes asking justice secretary Michael Matheson whether the unit is to be abolished.
Mr Matheson said the Scottish Government had not been told of any plans to close the CCU and referred to a review of the unit which is currently being undertaken by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS).
That report is expected in the coming weeks and will be complemented by Police Scotland’s own review of its internal whistleblowing procedures.
A report published last week showed that the force has investigated its own officers for historical drug use and illegally downloading pirate material, as well as a series of data protection offences.
Figures from the force’s Integrity Matters initiative show that between March 2015 and 23 February this year, there were 133 referrals, 29 of which were deemed criminal.
However, only two of those resulted in reports being sent to prosecutors.
While the police are right to investigate allegations of wrongdoing, it is a worry that so few of the cases have resulted in further action being taken. It suggests much of the whistleblowing currently taking place is malicious in nature.
The chief constable has correctly identified an issue at the heart of his organisation that needs to be resolved.
His review of whistleblowing is to be welcomed.
Whether the much-maligned CCU survives Police Scotland’s internal review and that of HMICS remains to be seen.