Chris Marshall: Tragic case of Elizabeth Bowe shows Police Scotland is dangerously stretched

Among the litany of recent mistakes made by Police Scotland's call centres, the case of Elizabeth Bowe is particularly shocking.

Charles Gordon was jailed for murdering his sister Elizabeth Bowe in St Andrews
Charles Gordon was jailed for murdering his sister Elizabeth Bowe in St Andrews

Ms Bowe, a 50-year-old vulnerable person who was known to police, was murdered by her brother in St Andrews last year.

A report published last week by the Police Investigations and Review Commssioner (Pirc) found her death could have been prevented had officers responded to a 999 call sooner.

Ms Bowe dialled the emergency number to report she was in a “domestic violence situation”, but despite initially being deemed important enough to require a police response, the call was later downgraded by the area control room at Bilston Glen in Midlothian.

When police did eventually attend nearly an hour and a half later, they found Ms Bowe had sustained injuries she would never recover from. She died three days later in hospital.

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Publishing her report, Commissioner Kate Frame said: “Had Police Scotland timeously dispatched resources in accordance with their call priority system following Elizabeth Bowe’s 999 call 1 hour and 24 minutes earlier, officers may have arrived at her home prior to her receiving the injuries from which she died and thereby prevented her death.”

Following publication of the Pirc report, the Scottish Conservatives released figures showing Police Scotland has recorded more than 200 “notable incidents” in their control rooms in the past year.

While these incidents are logged as opportunities for further learning, they are rarely a matter of life or death, although they can be.

They are also statistical anomalies. In the period in question, Police Scotland handled 2.2 million 999 and non-emergency calls, identifying failings in around just 0.009 per cent of those.

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Mistakes can never be entirely eliminated from a system which relies on human beings making decision under the pressure of time.

But the case of Ms Bowe and others – most notably the deaths of John Yuill and Lamara Bell in a crash on the M9 in 2015 – paint a picture of a stretched service.

While police officer numbers were protected by a 2007 SNP manifesto pledge, the number of civilian staff (those most likely to be answering the phone in force control rooms) fell following the merger of the country’s eight regional forces in 2013 to form Police Scotland.

Efforts have been made in recent months to recruit more police staff, helping make up for the many hundreds who left following the creation of the national force.

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But the numbers remain down on the situation that existed prior to Police Scotland, with around 5,500 police staff currently, compared to over 6,000 in 2010/11.

The obvious answer is to employ more staff.

Yet Police Scotland finds itself in an significant financial bind, projecting a £36m budget deficit for the current financial year, with around 90 per cent of its budget already going on staffing costs.

As part of its ten-year vision, the force has been given more power to shape its own destiny.

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The chief constable will be able to decide on officer numbers and whether more civilians should be employed to defeat new emerging cyber-crime threats.

But its clear call handling has to be a priority.

Cases such as that of Elizabeth Bowe may be rare, but the aspiration must surely be that they do not happen at all.