Chris Marshall: Policing has to break with the past

Police officers on the beat will be a less familiar sight
Police officers on the beat will be a less familiar sight
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My one recent experience of calling the police was illustrative of the problems the force now faces.

Amid concerns for a woman with mental health issues who repeatedly left strange packages in our tenement stair, we reluctantly called the non-emergency 101 number.

Despite taking our concerns for both our own safety and that of the woman seriously, there was little the police could do.

They promised to “send a car”, but I can’t be sure they ever did.

After many months of this, the woman disappeared and Police Scotland issued a press release as is common with missing persons inquiries.

She was found safe and well and that was the last I heard of her.

But the episode highlights the problem Police Scotland faces.

A police force struggling to make savings totalling £1.1 billion by 2026, it is often called upon to act as an arm of social services and a first point of contact for the NHS.

Indeed around 80 per cent of calls received by the police relate to non-criminal matters.

That is not the public’s fault – often there is no one else to call.

But it shows the stress and strain being put on the thin blue line at a time of budgetary pressure.

Ask most people what the police’s priorities should be in their area and you’re likely to hear the same answers over and over again: anti-social behaviour; housebreaking and car crime.

Yet Police Scotland now has much bigger challenges to face.

Earlier this year, a five-week investigation into online child abuse identified 500 potential victims and resulted in 400 charges.

The scale of offending uncovered by Operation Lattise, however, is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg.

The truth is that police forces are only now beginning to get a handle on the massive amount of criminality taking place on the internet, much of which goes unreported.

That applies to not just child abuse, but also fraud and organised crime.

Last week the Association of Scottish Police Superintendents warned criminals have “evolved” more quickly online than the police officers investigating them.

Cyber-crime is undoubtedly a major challenge for Police Scotland.

Perhaps a bigger challenge, however, will be educating the public that this unseen crime is a bigger threat to their everyday lives than more traditional offences.

Chief Constable Phil Gormley hinted at that earlier this year when he said the scale of online child abuse meant his officers may have to pay less attention to “low-level acquisitive crime” such as shoplifting and car theft.

That is likely to be unpalatable to those who have been the victims of those sorts of crime.

But if Police Scotland is to be a sustainable model capable of tackling major crime threats, then these are the difficult decisions it will have to make.

In an age where so much of our lives plays out online, the reporting of less serious offences over the internet cannot be too far off.

There are difficult discussions to be had, and it will not be an easily sell for politicians or senior officers.

But we can’t expect our police force to do all it has in the past, while facing the challenges of the future.