Police Scotland must act over sexism, racism and every form of discrimination within its ranks – Dr Paul Arnell and Dr Megan O’Neill

A single, unified Police Service of Scotland was created on April 1, 2013.

Police Scotland needs effective and consistent leadership and safe whistleblowing procedures to help root out prejudice (Picture: John Devlin)

It was presented as a new beginning: the inefficiencies and faults of the previous system of policing were in the past and a new professional, nationwide institution would operate with a community focus by ‘Keeping people safe’. This would come with 1,000 additional officers and be more cost efficient.

The initial years of Police Scotland have been plagued by controversies. No level of the institution has been spared.

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At the top, it may be recalled that Police Scotland’s first Chief Constable, Sir Stephen House resigned in 2015 in the wake of, amongst others, the stop-and-search controversy. His successor, Phil Gormley, also resigned as Chief Constable in the course of investigations into claims of gross misconduct. Those investigations were never concluded. The present Chief Constable, Iain Livingstone, was appointed in 2018.

Leadership and good governance are undoubtedly important, indeed crucial, for Police Scotland as they would be for any large organisation. Authority – moral and operational – permeates through organisations from the top downwards.

Around the same time as the appointment of the current Chief Constable, the former Lord Advocate, Dame Elish Angiolini, was commissioned to investigate the handling of complaints, investigations and misconduct issues in Police Scotland. The publication of her report in November 2020 appeared to be a watershed moment.

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Racial discrimination internally as well as discrimination towards women and LGBTQ+ officers and staff were highlighted. It also brought to the fore a reduction in the number of sergeants and a lack of suitable internal role models.

The murder of Sarah Everard in London has now focused national attention on the police and their treatment of women, both as victims of crime and as fellow officers. Coincidentally, recent legal proceedings in Scotland have exposed police attitudes akin to those made public south of the Border. Reinforcing the findings of the Angiolini report, Police Scotland remains affected by the relics of its paternalistic past.

One case illustrating the need for a ‘me too’ moment in Police Scotland began with the discovery of a number of inappropriate WhatsApp messages on the mobile phone of a serving constable in 2016. They were part of private group chats between groups of police officers, called “Quality Polis” and “PC Piggies”.

The messages led to the instigation of disciplinary proceedings against ten members of the groups by the Professional Standards Department. The officers were alleged to have fallen short in the standards of professional behaviour expected of them. In opposition to the disciplinary proceedings, the officers invoked their right to privacy. The Court of Session rejected that argument at first instance and on appeal.

The tenor of the messages was accepted by the judge as being “… blatantly sexist and degrading, racist, anti-semitic, homophobic, mocking of disability and includes a flagrant disregard for police procedures by posting crime scene photos of current investigations”.

Of importance in the case were the standards of professional behaviour within the Police Service of Scotland (Misconduct) Regulations 2014. These require constables to behave in a manner which does not discredit the police or undermine public confidence in it, whether on or off duty. In essence, the courts held that police officers were held to higher standards than members of the public in certain respects.

A second more recent case is that of a former female firearms officer who instigated proceedings at an employment tribunal on grounds of discrimination and victimisation. The judgment was handed down October 4 of this year. It was held that she had been victimised.

The officer joined the police in 2009. Having completed a firearm training course, she became an authorised firearms officer in 2016 working in Edinburgh. She retired from the police in April 2020 on the grounds of ill-health.

In 2019 she was copied into an email with the subject line “pairings” which stated that two female firearms officers should not be deployed together when there were sufficient male staff on duty. Reasons included the “balance of testosterone”.

This was the start of a sequence of events that led to the tribunal’s decision. It accepted in evidence examples of an “absolute boys club” and a “horrific” culture within the armed response vehicles unit. It noted that a female sergeant was told that women should not be firearms officers because they menstruated and this would affect their temperament.

Following the tribunal’s judgment, the Chief Constable has said he will order an independent review into the decision. He has also stated that Police Scotland would act upon the recommendations in the Angiolini report.

Now is a key moment for Police Scotland to act on this commitment. It is clear that internal cultures of discrimination still operate in policing across the UK, and that Police Scotland is no exception.

Addressing such behaviours and attitudes will take a comprehensive effort across the organisation and involve all ranks. Effective and consistent leadership, a safe internal whistleblowing environment and opportunities for reflective practice will be key to this success.

This will undoubtedly be a difficult task. Research on occupational cultures in policing provides evidence that there has been sex and race discrimination in policing in this and many other countries for decades.

However, one thing that Police Scotland does have on its side is a recent history of implementing significant change. The stop-and-search controversy is one example. The practice and its governance is now dramatically different from that existing under Sir Stephen House. Police Scotland has thus shown it has the capacity to act, the critical questions now are will it and to what extent?

Dr Paul Arnell, Law School, Robert Gordon University; Dr Megan O’Neill, School of Social Sciences, University of Dundee

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