Joyce McMillan: Has trust in police gone for good?

Sir Stephen House has presided over an unhappy period in Scottish police history. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Sir Stephen House has presided over an unhappy period in Scottish police history. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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The apparently unending series of police failures should concern every citizen who cares about freedom, says Joyce McMillan

It’s now just over two years since all of Scotland’s police forces were merged to create one single organisation, known as Police Scotland. It was a change marched through the Scottish Parliament with that lack of real scrutiny and public debate that seems inevitable, for the moment, in a country largely bereft of effective and credible opposition parties.

And it may well be that the move was ill-advised from the outset; in essence, it cannot be entirely healthy to have a single large police organisation functioning without any competitor, or any points of comparison, within the same legal system.

For all these misgivings, though, we are now apparently stuck with our single police force, at least for some years; and it should therefore be a matter of great concern to every citizen in Scotland – and of serious regret to the man in charge of the new force, former Strathclyde Police Chief Sir Stephen House – that the 28 months since the creation of Police Scotland have been among the unhappiest in the history of Scottish policing.

At first, concerns about the new force and its approach were just occasional straws in the wind; the first that came to my notice was the widespread anxiety in the Capital over the force’s crackdown, without consultation, on Edinburgh’s traditional “saunas”, little mini-brothels quietly pursuing their branch of the sex business in the city’s respectable streets.

Then in the months that followed, it began to become apparent – again without serious pubic debate – that Police Scotland was partly abandoning the longstanding British tradition of an unarmed police force. Police officers wearing firearms began to be seen in the oddest of places; one was spotted in a supermarket in Comely Bank, and when challenged on whether he was attending an incident that required firearms, replied that no, he was just in for a pie.

Then – as if the alien swagger of a frequently armed police force was not enough – Police Scotland appeared, in a breathtaking display of double standards, to target for closure one of the most important cultural venues in the country, the Arches in Glasgow, a place which for 25 years had formed a vital creative bridge between youthful club culture and the wider arts scene.

At the same time, questions were being asked in the Scottish Parliament about Police Scotland’s astonishing overuse of their stop-and-search powers. The First Minister gave assurances that the searching of children, at least, would stop; but months later, it still continued, raising concerns that the Scottish Government simply has no means of controlling the giant force it has created.

And then, finally, came the deaths this year both of Seku Bayoh, who died in police custody in Kirkcaldy, and of young couple John Yuill and Lamara Bell, who died after the police failed to respond to a report that their crashed car had been seen lying off the M9 near Stirling. The case of Mr Yuill and Ms Bell exposed desperately serious management failures at a call handling centre.And the death of Mr Bayoh took place in circumstances which suggest that Police Scotland simply has no acceptable procedures for dealing with such a case. The officers involved were not suspended or sent on leave, they gave no statements for days after the event, and unbelievably, the legislation surrounding Scotland’s Police Investigations and Review Commissioner is so weak that the Commissioner does not have the power to require that the officers make any statement at all.

Now from the commanding heights of Sir Stephen House’s office, these events may all seem like separate and rare examples of police failure. On the streets of Scotland, though, they are causing a rapid erosion of trust; rumours are rife in Glasgow about the “real” motives behind the closure of the Arches, and in Fife there are persistent stories about police involvement in the cancellation of fundraising events in the campaign for justice for Sheku Bayoh. These stories may only be conspiracy theories; but their very existence signals a serious breakdown of the trust and confidence on which civil policing depends.

And in these circumstances, there are three things which need to happen, without delay. The first is that Stephen House should tender his immediate resignation, and the Scottish Government should accept it; his period in charge of Police Scotland has not been a happy one, and he should go now, not next year, as already promised.

Secondly, the Scottish Government needs to establish some real distance from the police, and focus much more clearly on its role as the most senior public authority to which Police Scotland is accountable. It must strengthen the powers of the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner without delay, at least to the English and Welsh standard, if not beyond it; and in the case of Sheku Bayoh, it should intervene decisively, to ensure that his family receives both transparency and justice.

And then finally, Scottish civil society needs to snap out of its post-devolution complacency, and start exerting far stronger pressure on the Scottish Government to protect basic liberties. Of course, many of the current major threats to civil rights come from Westminster.

Yet the very creation of Police Scotland – along with several other recent pieces of legislation – offers evidence that the Scottish Government can play a major role in damaging our freedoms, unless it is subjected to the same diligent scrutiny as any other government. Scotland’s ability to maintain a civil society which fights for fundamental civil liberties, as well as for other forms of self-determination, will be a key test of our maturity as a self-governing society, whether within the UK or out of it.

And if active citizens do not begin to take these issues into their own hands, and to campaign for a polity and a police force that serves and frees the people, rather than simply controlling us “for our own good”, then it will be the worse for every aspect of Scottish life; for the vitality and civic energy of our streets, for our great festivals of fun and creativity, for our year-round creative life, and for the intellectual and spiritual freedom we once helped to give to the world, and which we should still prize today, beyond any other kind of wealth.