AFTER a spate of controversies, Sir Stephen House’s successor faces a daunting challenge to restore the public’s faith in Police Scotland and lift the morale of its officers, writes Euan McColm
When a new Chief Constable takes over from Sir Stephen House at the end of the year, his in-tray will be overflowing. After such a painful infancy, Police Scotland needs to be taken in hand – it will be difficult to know where to begin.
House has been in post since the force’s inception, having moved from his position at the top of Strathclyde Police, one of the eight territorial constabularies which merged, along with the Scottish Police Services Authority, to create it.
But almost three years after Police Scotland was formed, he’s gone, a victim of his own ego.
Come the start of December, this is the challenge House’s successor will face following the top cop’s decision last week to step down from his role in three months, rather than complete his four-year contract.
And the force he leaves behind will be in desperate need of a different style of leadership if it is to regain the confidence of both the public and politicians.
The evening before last Thursday’s announcement, House called First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to tell her of his decision. It is understood that she made no effort to dissuade him.
While a Scottish Government source insisted that the First Minister likes House and described their relationship as good, the chief constable’s decision will surely have come as something of a relief to Sturgeon.
A series of scandals that has plagued Police Scotland has led to pressure from political opponents on the Scottish Government. It was the SNP’s decision to create the single force, after all, so why shouldn’t they be answerable for its problems?
So whoever succeeds House will have quite a task in both reassuring the public that they understand – and can act to answer – legitimate concerns about the force’s practices, and reassuring government ministers that a period of relative calm can be expected.
Police Scotland was created in 2013 to save money. It may have been sold as a project that would deliver better, more “joined-up” policing, but the truth of the matter was far more prosaic. Dwindling budgets made the existing forces difficult to maintain. With ministers promising record numbers of “bobbies on the beat” it made sense to slash expensive management and bureaucracy.
The sharply political House was quick to see the opportunity the new force would create for him. He schmoozed – employing a former adviser to ex-first minister Jack McConnell as an aide – and when the shortlist for the post of chief was drawn up, he was the clear favourite.
Someone who previously worked alongside him said: “House was at his best in the boardroom with other men. He’s a man’s man; an alpha male. He really bowled over Alex Salmond and Kenny MacAskill [the former justice secretary with whom House enjoyed an especially cordial relationship]. They thought he was just great. He is impressive and commanding in person and they loved that.”
But although House began his role as chief constable in April 2013 with the full confidence of the country’s most senior politicians, questions were soon raised about his judgment.
A decision to deploy armed officers on the streets, as a matter of routine, attracted criticism from the public and politicians.
And if House’s reputation suffered because of this decision, the damage was compounded by his apparent failure to grasp why the sight of officers carrying pistols might cause disquiet.
As that particular controversy raged, it emerged that Police Scotland was using stop-and-search procedures – especially with children – more often even than the Metropolitan Police. This added to the perception that House was an overly authoritarian figure who might be overstepping the mark.
Questions were raised, too, about the role of the Scottish Police Authority, the watchdog to which House was answerable. It appeared that the SPA was unwilling to hold the chief constable to account, preferring instead to leave him to his own devices.
Someone who watched the relationship between House and the SPA said: “The authority was pretty clueless. They didn’t ever really challenge him about anything. He’d just report how things were going as far as he saw them and they would nod along.
“You have to understand that he’s a really imposing guy. He’s supremely confident. You don’t get any self-doubt with a guy like him. He comes into any meeting expecting to get what he wants.
“And, actually, that’s a pretty good thing. Now he’s going, people will use that as a criticism of him but, you know, what do you want from the head of a police force – a guy who knows what he wants or a drip?”
But although House appeared to have negotiated his way through the scandals over armed officers and stop and search, another three issues were to pile pressure on him and the Scottish Government.
On 3 May, a young father by the name of Sheku Bayoh died while in the custody of Police Scotland after being arrested in Kirkcaldy in Fife.
According to officers involved, Bayoh – originally from Sierra Leone – was holding a knife during an incident on the street, though his family is adamant that he had no history of violent behaviour or carrying a blade.
The full facts behind that incident are yet to emerge, but Bayoh’s death led to public protests about the police and demands that House should meet the dead man’s family just as he had met the officers involved.
If House hoped the pressure building on him would ease after pubic anger about Bayoh’s death abated, he was to be disappointed. Last month, Police Scotland was plunged into the biggest scandal of its brief existence.
A car carrying Lamara Bell and her partner, John Yuill, plunged down an embankment on the M9 motorway. A passing driver spotted the crashed car and called the police. But, for reasons which have not yet been explained, the report was not logged.
The couple were then reported missing, but it was not until three days after the crash that, following a second reported sighting of the vehicle, officers attended to find Yuill dead behind the wheel and Bell suffering from serious injuries of which she would soon die.
House acknowledged that the force had failed the couple and their families but his public apology did nothing to quell calls from opposition MSPs for him to quit.
A Police Scotland insider said: “He demands the very highest standards of his officers and it would not have been fair for him to have had to take the fall for this. But if you agree that the buck stops at the top, sometimes people have to take the rap even if it doesn’t appear fair.”
The chief constable has also faced serious questions over allegations that Police Scotland’s counter-corruption unit snooped on journalists without having obtained the permission of a judge. It is claimed that officers ignored the law when trying to find the source of leaks about a failed murder investigation. Again, House was called on to take responsibility. Again, he seemed reluctant to do so.
And yet another issue seems likely to increase pressure on Scotland’s most senior cop. The results of a survey of staff are soon to be published and it is anticipated that there will not be much happy reading for House among the findings.
There have already been reports of low morale among officers and, should this survey bear out the anecdotal evidence, he will be in for harsh criticism. There has been some speculation that House decided to jump before publication of those survey results. But a Scottish Government source is not convinced.
“If you survey the staff of any large organisation, you’ll always find members who who’ll say the boss is a bastard. That’s life, that’s just the way these things go.
“I’m not sure that you could argue the survey was the reason that he decided to resign this week.
“I think that you’ve got a guy under a lot of different pressures and he’s looked at those and at first thought that none of them is a reason for him to go – but also thought that things were not going to get any easier for him.
“He’s picked a time when things are fairly calm and taken the decision entirely on his own terms. He has gone because he decided it was the right thing for him and the force, not because he had been told to go. He had the First Minister’s support and there was no pressure on him to go.”
The source, however, conceded that a decision last week by House and SPA chair Vic Emery – who is also stepping down – to issue a joint statement defending the force had an air of desperation about it.
When the chief constable and the watchdog banded together, it suggested that neither fully grasped the seriousness of concerns about the way the force has been operating under House’s leadership.
The process to appoint a successor will now begin, with a new chief constable expected to be in post by the start of 2016.
As he or she gets down to the job in hand, the first thing to do will be to restore confidence in a force that has seemed, at times, to have become a law unto itself.