Chris Marshall: New police chief faces tough times

Police Scotland’s new chief constable, Phil Gormley, was sworn in yesterday, and will not be short of challenges in the weeks and months that lie ahead.

Police Scotland’s new chief constable, Phil Gormley, was sworn in yesterday, and will not be short of challenges in the weeks and months that lie ahead.

One of the most pressing issues facing the force is a request by the Scottish Parliament’s justice committee that four of its officers appear before it next week to give evidence.

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It follows an appearance by Deputy Chief Constable Neil Richardson last month after it emerged Police Scotland contravened data guidelines in its attempt to unmask a source providing the media with information.

The Interception of Communications Commissioner’s Office (Iocco) said the force had been “reckless” in failing to obtain judicial approval for the move.

The Iocco investigation related to use of the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa), which allows authorities to ask for the “who”, “when” and “where” of phone or e-mail communication, but not its content.

Sir Stanley Burnton, the Interception of Communications Commissioner, said Police Scotland had sought communications data to determine a journalist’s source or the “communications of those suspected to have been acting as intermediaries between a journalist and a suspected source”.

He said four people had been “adversely affected” by the contraventions.

Police Scotland had sought to identify the source of a leak using phone numbers after press reports appeared about the investigation into the 2005 murder of Emma Caldwell, which remains unsolved.

Following Mr Richardson’s appearance at Holyrood’s justice committee in December, the committee’s convener requested that four senior officers – including Chief Superintendent Clark Cousins, head of the Counter Corruption Unit (CCU) – appear to answer further questions.

But in a letter from Police Scotland’s head of legal services, Duncan Campbell, the force resisted calls for the officers in question to give evidence.

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Mr Campbell said Police Scotland was concerned the committee “may be acting beyond its powers”.

In a letter to the clerk of the committee he also warned that calling the four officers as witnesses may lead to “improper disclosure of information” and put the named individuals at risk.

In her response, the committee’s convener, SNP MSP Christine Grahame, rebutted Police Scotland’s concerns and said she “looked forward” to seeing the witnesses on 12 January.

It remains to be seen whether the evidence session will go ahead.

If it does, it is likely to generate awkward headlines for the new chief constable as he attempts to rebuild Police Scotland’s battered imaged.

Mr Gormley will also be keenly aware of ongoing investigations by the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (Pirc) into the custody death of Sheku Bayoh and the deaths of Lamara Bell and John Yuill in the M9 crash.

Both investigations will report to the lord advocate, who will then decide whether further action is required.

In a year where Police Scotland hopes to look ahead and start afresh, much of media coverage looks set to be dominated by the controversies of the past. Amid more warnings from justice secretary Michael Matheson that he continues to expect Police Scotland to make cuts, Mr Gormley will have to draw on all his experience to restore faith in his beleaguered force.