Comment: Toothless police watchdogs failing

OVERSIGHT is failing as Police Scotland watchdogs prove to have no teeth, writes Chris Marshall

Armed police patrol Glasgow Airport. Picture: Getty
Armed police patrol Glasgow Airport. Picture: Getty
Armed police patrol Glasgow Airport. Picture: Getty

The reform of Scotland’s police service – which began with the creation of a national force in 2013 – is still a work in progress.

But the controversy over both armed policing and stop and search shows oversight of the process isn’t working.

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Despite busying themselves with report after report, both the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) have so far proved to be completely toothless.

Shocked into action following the latest revelations about police stop-searching children, the SPA will hold a public meeting to discuss the issue on Friday.

To employ the phrase used by the body’s chairman when he appeared before MSPs last year to explain scrutiny failings, it’s spectacularly “after the fact”.

Figures published last week showed Police Scotland have carried out stop-searches on hundreds of children under the age of 12, despite assurances a senior officer gave to the Scottish Parliament’s justice committee that the controversial practice would be stopped.

The figures have led Police Scotland to say it is reviewing the use of “consensual” or “non-statutory” stop and search, with the expectation that the tactic is likely to be scrapped.

In an open letter published on Monday, the Scottish Police Federation, a staff association, accused MSPs of interference in an issue they are largely “ignorant” about.

But were it not for MSPs and the media asking questions, it seems there would be very little scrutiny of the police at all, given the ineffectual showing of the SPA and HMICS so far.

Appearing before MSPs last year, the SPA chairman Vic Emery complained that Police Scotland had not consulted the watchdog before taking the controversial decision to deploy armed officers on routine patrol.

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Clearly the SPA is still trying to find its feet, but months more down the line it appears it is still decidedly unable to ask questions of Police Scotland.

A long-awaited inquiry into armed policing published by the SPA on 29 January was expected to ask searching questions of the police over a tactic so divisive it had already been reversed by the time the report arrived.

Instead, the study’s headline finding was that a “narrow” majority of the public (53 per cent) supported the policy.

A report on the same topic by HMICS last year asserted that armed officers were providing helpful assistance by carrying out 8,000 stop-searches, as if that was something to be commended.

Just as Police Scotland has its work cut out on allaying concerns about stop and search, the watchdogs need to restore faith that they’re up to the job.