Obituaries: Sir William Sutherland, Chief Constable, Lothian & Borders Police

Sir William George Mackenzie Sutherland CBE, QPM. Police officer and mountaineer. Born: 12 November 1933 in Inverness. Died: 30 May 2022, aged 88

When, in 1983, Bill Sutherland returned to his homeland to take up the post of Chief Constable of Lothian & Borders Police, he inherited a force of good size and structure but one underfunded and in need of modernisation.

When he stood down 13 years later, he was one of the UK’s most respected Chief Constables and a knight of the realm. He left a well-funded and thoroughly modern Force with a strong cohort of up-and-coming officers who would go on to fill the most senior ranks of the police service in generations to come.

All this he achieved, not as a martinet, but with clarity of vision, shrewd judgement, and a personal integrity that won him many admirers.

Sir William Sutherland was a visionary leader of Police Scotland (Picture: Ian Rutherford)

William George Mackenzie Sutherland was born in 1933 into a large Inverness family. He was educated locally before National Service in the Royal Engineers took him to Japan at the height of the Korean War.

A military life did not appeal to him, instead he decided to join the Police. A boyhood friend had recently joined Cheshire Constabulary and for no other reason than that, the 21-year-old Bill did likewise.It was a fateful decision. Cheshire had just been amalgamated into a large County Force. There were opportunities for bright young men to rise.

But it was a fateful decision for more important reasons. It was there that Bill fell for a pretty young policewoman, Jennie Abbott. A straight-talking Lancashire lass, she was the perfect match for Bill. The pair were married for 63 years and throughout his stellar career he was clear that she had played a huge part in his success.

The Sutherland family, now including daughters Alison and Anne, moved house frequently following Bill’s promotions.By 1974 Bill was serving as a Chief Superintendent in Surrey under the redoubtable Sir Peter Mathews, another Scot. The two men hit it off and Bill soon found himself commanding the busy Guildford Division. He was on duty on the night of the Guildford pub bombings of 5 October 1974, arriving to take charge ten minutes after the first explosion but before the second bomb.

The carnage of the scene stayed with him, as did the calm manner with which his young officers went about their duties amidst the chaos – Peter Mathews, had been a wartime RAF pilot. Training lay at the heart of his policing doctrine. It was another lesson learned.

The Sutherlands were soon on the move again, first to Hertfordshire where Bill served as Assistant Chief, then Bedfordshire as Chief.

It had been a meteoric rise but when Bill was appointed to Lothian & Borders he was still relatively unknown north of the Border. Nevertheless, on arrival be brought with him a breadth and depth of experience unrivalled in Scotland.

The Force he inherited had good senior officers but was chronically underfunded and in need of modernisation.

Bill soon made his mark, bringing dynamic change. All the lessons he had learned were deployed with firmness, but also an ease and natural charm that brought his officers with him. It was obvious to all that he knew exactly what he was doing.

And he came with backup – Jennie Sutherland was warm, straight and she knew policing. She quickly became popular and respected in her own right.Results came quickly. Remarkably, against the backdrop of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike he persuaded his Labour-dominated Police Authority to increase funding, allowing him to recruit and invest in computerisation.

Computers were to become vitally important as Lothian & Borders investigated two of the most complex, long-running murder investigations in Scottish history. The hunt for the “Worlds End” killers of Helen Scott and Christine Eadie and the child killers of Susan Maxwell and Caroline Hogg tested his Force’s resilience to its limits. Throughout, Bill was fully supportive but never interfered, leaving it to his trusted deputy Hector Clark. This was typical, he was no micromanager.

Delegation and the empowerment of his subordinates lay at the heart of his credo.

As part of his succession planning he would test promising young officers by giving them more responsibility than he thought they could handle. Bill accepted that mistakes would be made but never punished errors made in good faith. He knew how to build confidence in his people.

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Of course, in a career of over 20 years at the top of policing there were difficult times and Bill had his share. He almost came unstuck in 1976 when, as an assistant Chief Constable, he was in charge of policing the Knebworth pop festival. The Rolling Stones were due to headline that year but technical faults meant they were running late. The well-lubricated crowd of 200,000 were getting restless, a crush was a real possibility, so Bill decided to climb on to the enormous stage to get the show started.

Making his way backstage he sought out Mick Jagger to seek his help. To his immense relief he found the Stones and their management helpful and utterly professional. Within minutes they were on stage and disaster was averted. Thereafter Bill would always have a fondness for the Stones, if not all their music.

When troubles came in Lothian & Borders they came from unusual directions. When a poorly managed informant climbed through an unlocked window at Fettes HQ in Edinburgh and stole a bundle of papers, the press dubbed the incident “Fettesgate”. There followed the more salacious “Magic Circle” allegations. A handful of disgruntled detectives and a disreputable lawyer combined to allege that a paedophile ring was operating in the highest echelons of Scotland’s legal profession. Improbable though it seemed, the allegations were investigated by an independent Chief Constable and separately by a QC.

Unsurprisingly, no evidence was found but trouble arose when some senior politicians called for the detectives involved to be sacked. Bill stood his ground, sticking with the recommendations of the independent inquiry. Always his own man, he was ever mindful of his operational independence.

While his stance made him some political enemies, many more admired his grit and integrity. He was philosophical about these troubles. He wished they had not happened, of course, but since they had, he was content that he and his Force had stood the test.

As his reputation grew he became hugely influential in National Policing Issues and in 1988 was deservedly knighted for his service.

But he never forgot his early days. His sympathies were always with the people at the sharp end. He took huge pleasure from his frequent visits to police stations, where he enjoyed chatting to junior staff. To the men and women who worked for him he was a chief they knew and could trust.

In 1996, after 13 years, he left Lothian & Borders to become HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary. As always he carried out this role with skill, and was appointed CBE on his retirement.

True to character, Bill then stepped away from public life. Quangos and Non-Exec positions did not interest him. Instead he returned to his first love, the mountains of Scotland. As a young man in the Highlands he had been a competitive hill runner, now he again embraced the wild places. Always ferociously fit, in his late seventies he could be seen running in the Pentland Hills near his home. He was never happier than when he was in the mountains.

Even as Bill’s physical health failed his wits remained razor sharp. He kept a keen interest in policing and took great pleasure from the success of many of the young people he had recruited.

Hospitalised for the last few days of his life, he took great comfort from the care of his beloved Jennie and his daughters. Alert to the end, he was typically full of praise for the young nurses.

With his passing goes one of the finest Chief Constables of his or any other era. Those who had the privilege to serve under his leadership will always owe him a debt of gratitude.


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