Chris Marshall: Police should not restrict visits to only the most vulnerable crime victims

Two people fall victim to the same crime. The first, a man in his thirties, is able to shake off the experience but the other, an elderly woman, is left distressed and struggling to come to terms with what has happened.

Police Scotland need to retain public confidence by not picking and choosing which victims of crime they visit, writes Chris Marshall.

The offence is considered minor, but clearly has had more impact on one victim than the other.

According to the chief constable of Police Scotland, it is only the elderly, more vulnerable, victim who requires a visit from his officers.

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Appearing before the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) last week, Phil Gormley suggested a future where his officers will have to prioritise their response to incidents based on the impact they have on the victim.

Mr Gormley said the harm caused by a crime will vary in relation to a person’s ability to deal with it.

He said he personally would be less in need of a visit from an officer than, for example, a 75-year-old dementia sufferer.

He used the example of a house break-in before correcting himself, saying that was a crime his officers are always likely to attend.

His comments follow on from those made previously that his officers are less likely to attend to low-level crimes such as car theft and shoplifting in future due to more important pressures, such as tackling child sexual abuse.

Make no mistake about it, these are not comments senior police officers would be making if it were not for compelling budgetary reasons.

During the same SPA meeting it emerged Police Scotland will exceed its revenue budget by £28.2m this year, leading to a total “overspend” on its budget of £17.5m.

The national police force needs to find ways of doing more with fewer and fewer resources.

Along with the SPA it has begun developing what the Scottish Police Federation (SPF) calls a “narrative” around officers retreating from public view to deal with the growing threat of cyber-crime.

The SPA, which is currently working on a ten-year strategy for Scottish policing, has even gone as far as to suggest the future will be fewer uniformed officers and more graduates working in “darkened rooms” to defeat online criminality.

Regardless of the threat posed by cyber-criminals, that’s not a vision of policing that the public is likely to sign up to.

Both Police Scotland and the SPA need to be extremely careful before embarking on changes which see officers become more remote from the communities they are there to serve.

There are undoubtedly those who would prefer to report crime over the phone or online but that does not make it the best or safest model.

Similarly, just because a victim of an apparently minor crime tells officers he doesn’t need a visit in person, doesn’t mean that should be the end of the matter.

The SPF, which represents the rank and file, has described how attending seemingly minor incidents – e.g. shoplifting – can often lead officers to bigger problems such as child protection issues.

We should not forget this sort of policing in the race to tackle cyber-crime, even if the latter is an area which is growing exponentially.

Eventually Police Scotland may have fewer officers but it must retain the confidence of the public it serves and that means officers attending in person regardless of the victim’s age or perceived vulnerability.

The SPA has said Police Scotland will always be a “service of first response and of last resort”.

We must make sure we hold them to that commitment.