WHEN a single police force was first mooted for Scotland to replace the country’s eight local forces, it was seen primarily as a cost-cutting measure at a time of austerity.
And there is no doubt that eradicating the unnecessary duplication of administrative functions, as well as the streamlining of a top-heavy leadership structure, will save money. But what has become clear as plans for Police Scotland have become public is the way a single force will radically change how we fight and deter crime in this country.
There is much to welcome in these developments. Just as crucial aspects of the NHS benefit from centralisation – one large child heart surgery unit will produce better surgical outcomes than two smaller and less busy units, for example – so there are moves for some serious crimes that have usually been dealt with at local force level to be tackled by a specialist unit with specialist knowledge. Stephen House, chief constable of the new force, announced last month that a national unit would be set up to deal with accusations of rape, a move that received a widespread welcome.
The creation of a single force will not, however, only mean greater centralisation. As we report on our front page today, it will also mean that police protection currently provided only to our large urban conurbations will also be available to small towns and rural areas. The fact that armed police response units will be on hand in the Highlands and in rural Perthshire as well as inner-city Glasgow and Edinburgh should be a reassurance to communities that all parts of Scotland will benefit from the new organisational set-up.
Are armed police necessary in Dumfries and Elgin? The lesson of the Derrick Bird killings in Cumbria in 2010, and the Raoul Moat murders in Northumbria earlier that year, is that no-one can be sure where a gunman will strike, and that living in a quiet rural town is no guarantee of safety. At the height of the Bird emergency, senior Scottish officers wondered if he might drive north into Scotland – a thought that concentrated their minds on how he might be countered in the rural Borders. The result is a policy that must be welcomed as an unfortunate necessity and a sensible precaution. No-one wants to see more gun-carrying police officers, but at the same time no-one wants to leave large swathes of Scotland ill-prepared for eventualities which – too many events demonstrate – can strike anywhere.
When two female police officers were shot in Manchester in September, one of the impressive aspects of the response to the killings was there was almost no-one calling for police officers in the UK to be routinely armed. At every level of the police service, from the Police Federation representing the grass roots to Acpo representing chief constables, the message was the same: the unarmed bobby on the beat is a tradition worth cherishing. The flip side of that coin is that there must, nonetheless, be a way of deterring armed crime. If the police officer on routine patrol is to remain unarmed – and he or she must be – then other officers elsewhere must be armed.
Such protection will not come cheap – all 14 divisions of Police Scotland will have a firearms team, meaning that up to 400 officers will need to be trained to carry guns – but it is undoubtedly necessary. As well as an investment in our safety, it is an investment in preserving the traditional methods of policing that the public demands and the police want to provide.
Time to enjoy
THERE was much to commend 2012. The Olympic Games gave a welcome lift to the spirits of the whole of the UK, not just London, as some had feared. And they helped define a more modern sense of Britishness than we in Scotland had come to expect, used as we were to the tired tropes of the independence debate over many years (although what effect it will ultimately have on the referendum remains to be seen). For those fervently pro or anti-royalist, the Queen’s Jubilee was an excuse for a good argument, while the majority of Scots simply wished her well on a remarkable landmark.
But beyond these big glitzy spectaculars, the past 12 months saw the age of austerity continue to take its toll on most households in these islands. Pay freezes and threat of redundancy were a constant for millions. If government economic forecasts are anything to go by, the pain will stretch into 2013 and beyond. This week, however, we can try to put difficulties aside for a few days of enforced rest and relaxation. With any luck there will be gifts to give and receive, good food and drink to be enjoyed, and some time spent with our loved ones. Pretty soon the shopping will be done, the turkey will be ready for collection and the drinks cabinet fully stocked. So put your cares aside for now. Put your feet up and enjoy. We wish all our readers a very happy Christmas.