The Scottish Police Authority (SPA), which will oversee the single force Police Scotland from April, intends to test the previously sacrosanct notion of “operational independence” for serving officers. It follows concern that some investigations are failing the “value for money” test at a time of strict budgetary control.
But challenging the decisions of police commanders is likely to create further tensions between the force and the authority. The Association of Scottish Police Superintendents stressed it is important that operational independence is preserved and savings are not given too high a priority.
Iain Whyte, chairman of Lothian and Borders joint police board and an SPA member, said the police force should not be just given a blank cheque to pursue certain crimes. “We want to be able to say ‘Yesterday you charged over there and started a murder investigation, pulled in all these resources. Did you need to do that?” Whyte said. “Or was there a different method that would be more effective?
“Other than that, you should not tell them [officers] who to arrest. There aren’t any no-go areas when assessing best value. We will look to use scrutiny in a much broader sense.”
One investigation that has come under scrutiny was the case of Edinburgh office worker Suzanne Pilley. The investigation into her disappearance went on for months, even after her lover David Gilroy – who was ultimately convicted of her murder and jailed for life – had been charged. Whyte said: “I would say to them [the officers]: ‘Do we have the overall resources to do this? If we are doing it, is it pulling resources away from local policing or road policing for long periods?’
“It’s not about second-guessing them, it’s about making sure they are making the right decisions.”
He added: “As we have seen from the NHS recently, those at the operational frontline in all our major public services really need to shift culture. Being questioned isn’t an attack on your integrity. It is part of the checks and balances of public life.”
Whyte said the new SPA board “will have more power to oversee best value. If it’s about how many officers they’ve got patrolling a certain area, or how many officers they send to a particular type of crime, we need to show evidence that it is achieving better outcomes for the public.”
The Association of Scottish Police Superintendents said the decisions taken by senior investigating officers (SIOs) were primarily driven by a requirement to protect the public, to preserve life, to keep the peace and to comply with the laws passed by parliament.
“Fundamentally their decisions are driven by the key purpose of keeping people safe,” a spokesman said. “SIOs are aware of the financial consequences associated with their operational decisions; it is a factor, but not the overriding factor. They do not stop or slow down a missing person inquiry because money is tight.
“They will not reduce the effort to keep someone at risk of harm safe, because it costs too much money. They take operational decisions based upon their professional judgment.”
Police Scotland said it accepted the authority would scrutinise its decisions. “We absolutely recognise the scrutiny and accountability role that the SPA will adopt and which will develop and evolve through discussion in the coming weeks,” a spokeswoman said. “Strong local policing is a hallmark of the service we deliver.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman added: “The act establishing Scotland’s new single police service contains a wide range of mechanisms to ensure proper accountability for and scrutiny of policing in Scotland – and makes it clear that the SPA is responsible for holding the chief constable to account for the policing of Scotland.
“It is for the SPA to decide how it will undertake this scrutiny and accountability role.”