End of an era: Lothian and Borders police history

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IT was the year Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative party, Charlie Chaplin was given a knighthood, and the average house price stood at £10,388.

And on the streets of Edinburgh, the first officers of the new Lothian and Borders Police were put on the beat.

Picture: contributed

Picture: contributed

Things were very different on that day in 1975 as Edinburgh welcomed its new police force. Back then, one of the first items on the agenda for the top brass was whether to allow female officers to wear trousers.

Officers still patrolled strict street-by-street beats and checked in at police boxes dotted across the city. Forget palm top computers, the PCs back then were simply handed the notebook of the officer they were relieving. Indeed, it would be another decade before the force stopped issuing officers with whistles.

On Monday, Edinburgh will once again welcome a new police force as the Lothian and Borders name is consigned to history to make way for Police Scotland.

It is the end of an era for police in Edinburgh – one which has seen officers called to deal with challenges ranging from the miners’ strike to papal visits, from the G8 protests to a Commonwealth Games. That, and everything else which goes with serving and protecting Scotland’s Capital city.

Assistant Chief Constable Graham Sinclair recalls beginning shifts in the 1980s at a police call box, taking possession of the shared radio from a colleague heading home to bed.

“My first police box was in Dean Terrace, Stockbridge. You would start your shift at the box where the officer finishing the last shift would hand over the radio. There would be the notebook in the box with anything you might have to follow up and you would often eat your piece in there.

“It was about patrolling your beat to gather information. But where your beat ended then you might have no idea about crime trends in the next street across.

“Now we have computer mapping technology to analyse crime everywhere, whereas policing in those days was far more localised.”

Along with computer technology, he cites advancements in DNA technology and the spread of CCTV as two “step changes” which have revolutionised police work during the history of the force.

It was May 16, 1975, when Lothian and Borders Police came into being through the amalgamation of Berwick, Roxburgh and Selkirk Constabulary, Edinburgh City Police and the Lothians and Peebles Constabulary to coincide with the restructuring of local government.

The police headquarters at Fettes was opened the previous year by the Queen, and, despite complaints about its increasingly cramped nature over the decades, it remained the base until the end.

The then newly-enlarged force area, with the capital city frequently centre stage, became the scene of historic occasions which required huge policing operations.

In 1982, Pope John Paul II visited the Capital and attracted huge crowds – a feat repeated in 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to Edinburgh in 1984 was met with tight security, while two years later the Commonwealth Games drew athletes and heads of state from around the world and provided another policing challenge.

Perhaps the biggest public order challenge faced by police chiefs was the G8 protests in July 2005, when protesters brought chaos to the city centre and clashed with officers in a series of violent confrontations along Princes Street and in the West End.

ACC Sinclair says that public order policing has advanced almost beyond recognition since he joined as a constable in 1983.

“Planning for major events is one of the most significant changes I’ve witnessed. Nowadays, the degree of planning involved is amazing. Previously, police would dictate everything but now there’s much more working with partners.

“Back then, the building of Torness power station near Dunbar saw a large number of protests by anti-nuclear groups in the late 1970s. Busloads of officers would head out to police those protests, although at the time it was said they were off to have a picnic by the sea.

“Then we had the miners’ strike, which saw large number of officers on duty in Midlothian and East Lothian in 1984-85.”

Around the same time, a heroin epidemic struck and Edinburgh gained the unenviable reputation as the drugs and Aids capital of Europe.

The problem peaked in 1984, when there were estimated to be around 1500 people hooked on heroin in the Lothians and HIV infections surged due to needle sharing.

“We had to deal with the drug issues,” says ACC Sinclair, “but also a massive rise in housebreakings by those seeking to fund their habit. Top-floor flats were being broken into like it was going out of fashion.”

However, the blackest memories for many officers who served with Lothian and Borders Police are the hundreds of murders committed since its inception.

The incredible advances in technology have revolutionised those investigations. Indeed, in 1982, Lothian and Borders introduced the UK’s first computerised crime recording system, putting it at the forefront of change.

Technology has also changed the lot of the modern-day Bobby on the beat, and there has been a welcome change in the make-up of the force. Anyone inspecting the ranks in 1975 would be struck by the male majority – hence the discussions of the women’s uniform at the first police board meeting. Now there are 792 female officers out of a total of 3047.

ACC Sinclair says: “When I first joined, there might be two or three women officers on shift out of about 50. Now women often outnumber men on a shift and our recruitment rate is about 40 per cent women. The force has definitely changed – and for the better.”

Road from 1682 to 1975

EDINBURGH has one of the oldest police forces in the world, its first incarnation dating back 331 years.

It was 1682 when a town guard was formed to carry out the basic duties of a recognisable police force. The town guard developed a fearsome reputation due to its fondness for alcohol and a willingness to use weapons in enforcing the 8pm curfew.

In 1805, Edinburgh City Police replaced the town guard. Leith, which was a separate burgh, formed its own force in 1833. Following the First World War, Leith Police became part of Edinburgh City Police and various amalgamations of county forces took place in subsequent years.

Before Police Scotland

THE blue lamp over the door of our police force of nearly 40 years is being extinguished, leaving a substantial legacy.

1975 – Lothian and Borders Police formed with John Orr, former chief constable of Lothians and Peebles Constabulary, made first chief constable.

1983 – William Sutherland appointed the force’s second chief constable.

1990 – St Leonards police station opens.

1996 – Roy Cameron becomes the force’s third chief constable.

1999 – Lothian and Borders Police launches its website.

2001 – Lothian and Borders Police issue CS spray to officers.

2002 – Paddy Tomkins becomes the fourth chief constable.

2003 – Lothian and Borders Police moves from three divisions in Edinburgh to one. ‘A’ Division is reformed, covering the entire city.

2004 – The £10 million Force Communications Centre (FCC) opens in Midlothian.

2006 – New-style black uniform replaces traditional white shirts and ties.

2007 – David Strang becomes fifth and final chief constable.

2013 – Lothian and Borders Police ceases to exist after 38 years of service.