Leader comment: Police Scotland in the dock again

Police Scotland seems to stumble from one fiasco to another.

The spying scandal – in which the force’s Counter Corruption Unit (CCU) acted unlawfully by seizing communications data while attempting to discover the source of leaks to the press about a stalled murder investigation – was bad enough.

But Police Scotland was yesterday accused by the chief constable of Durham Constabulary of frustrating his efforts to investigate the CCU’s actions.

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Michael Barton told Holyrood’s justice sub-committee that the four spied-upon officers had been “gravely wronged”, that he was “prevented” from carrying out a thorough investigation and that he had argued with Police Scotland’s professional standards department “all the way” through the process.

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Police Scotland 'prevented' work of spy probe

His claims come on top of the bullying allegations that led to the recent departure of Police Scotland’s chief constable; fatal errors by call centre staff; a row over political interference by Justice Minister Michael Matheson; armed police being sent on routine patrols; alleged misuse of the police firing range; and claims about financial mismanagement after a senior officer was paid nearly £70,000 to relocate.

Labour said Mr Barton had exposed the “dysfunctional culture at the top of Police Scotland”, while the justice sub-committee’s convener John Finnie, a former police officer, described the chief constable’s evidence as “damning”.

Police Scotland may point to a separate probe by the Police Service of Northern Ireland which found no misconduct by the CCU, but to have a serving chief constable publicly castigate the force in such a way is extraordinary and deeply concerning. It is ridiculous for police to be accused of failing to co-operate over serious allegations with other police. What kind of example does that set?

Given the cost implications, there is no going back on the creation of a single, national force, but the five years since it was established have been troubled to say the least.

This latest affair puts even more pressure on the Scottish Police Authority and its new chair, Susan Deacon, to find a replacement chief constable who is able to stem the tide of bad news and restore Police Scotland’s reputation.

It is an appointment of vital importance to the people of Scotland and one that could even be a matter of life and death.