Lesley Riddoch: What is wrong at Police Scotland

Does the cluster of problems around Police Scotland suggest it's time to rethink the single force strategy?

Chief Constable Phil Gormley is facing investigation over alleged bullying

In the last few days, Police Scotland has revealed it will have a £22 million “underspend” this year, despite ageing vehicles, stations in poor repair, fewer officers than ever on response policing and restrictions on overtime. The force was also forced to confirm recruiting nearly 800 informants in three years and had to concede officers are leaving the British Transport Police ahead of its controversial integration into Police Scotland by 2019.

Meanwhile, at the weekend, the body of a Bo’ness man reported missing four weeks ago was finally found after a massive search effort - in his own home.

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Last month Police Scotland had to apologise after the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (Pirc) found officers did not respond properly to four calls from the public about Andrew Bow, a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome, whose flat was a short walk from an Edinburgh police station. When officers were finally sent, they found Mr Bow dead.

Pirc heard from staff in the Bilston Glen control room that “urgent” calls could remain “un-actioned” for days. The same control room failed properly to process a call from the public in 2015 after a crash near the M9. Three days later John Yuill was found dead – and his partner Lamara Bell died in hospital.

Despite call handling problems at Bilston Glen, other control rooms in Aberdeen and Inverness are closing, with their command and control responsibilities shifted to Dundee. Police stations have also been closing – though maybe not at the rate highlighted this weekend in England and Wales where public counters at 40 per cent of stations closed over the last decade.

Still, in 2014 Police Scotland revealed 60 frontline police stations across Scotland would close their doors to the public and added a further 58 buildings across Scotland to the “possible closure” list last year.

Meanwhile, Police Scotland has trouble at the top. Less than two years after the inaugural Chief Constable Sir Stephen House stepped down after the M9 crash, his replacement, Phil Gormley, is the subject of an investigation into bullying allegations made by a senior colleague.

So what’s going on?

Is the problem having one single force or having a succession of poor appointments to the single top job, imposing policing methods on a diverse wee nation, which doesn’t resemble the large conurbations of multi-cultural England. Clearly, there is a hard-to-resolve resource struggle between bobbies on the beat and specialists tackling cyber crime, people trafficking and historic sex abuse across the whole UK and maybe across Europe.

But there’s no doubt one big problem in Scotland is centralised control.

Thirteen divisional commanders are responsible for delivering the centrally determined police plan, and councillors still have the ability to comment and maybe influence it. But that’s not a patch on the local clout wielded before 2013 when local joint police boards shaped policing priorities and hired and fired local chief constables. Now accountability is the job of the Scottish Police Authority, but it, too, has been mired in controversy since its chairman announced he’s standing down after complaints about closed-door meetings raised in two Holyrood committees.

The problem is that physical access to police stations has been reduced at the same time that local control via councils has gone, local decision-making by community-based officers has been replaced by centralised diktat, local control rooms have been closed and the appointment of the top cop has been centralised in the hands of the Scottish Government. That’s way too much central control.

When Police Scotland was set up four years ago – admittedly with cross-party support - the Scottish Government cited the Nordic nations where populations of five million tend to have single police forces. But they operate in a very different context. The Nordic nations have powerful local councils keeping these national structures in check. Scotland doesn’t.

Last year, then COSLA president David O’Neill said Police Scotland needed to “develop new arrangements which will hand some meaningful control over policing back to our communities”. Phil Gormley agreed but little happened. That must change.

A second problem is lack of integration. After an expensive new computer system was binned last year, different areas of Scotland have been left using different crime systems. The only new Police Scotland-wide system in use is the one that helped produce the M9 tragedy. Such a systems patchwork could soon prove calamitous.

Of course a third problem is funding – the Scottish Government says it’s being squeezed by an unfair 20 per cent VAT bill triggered by the change in policing from a local to a central function. Certainly, the PSNI in Northern Ireland don’t pay VAT, but the problem of possible VAT liability was raised before Police Scotland’s creation.

The final problem is leadership. Sir Stephen House was renowned for his “You’re either on the bus or under it” approach and many officers feel his move from the Met imported heavy-handed policing methods, including a disastrous change to stop and search policy. His successor, Phil Gormley, is a different kettle of fish but since he may also leave early, who will replace him?

It’s believed Justice Secretary Michael Matheson, Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish Police Authority and the Scottish Police Federation all wanted the current deputy chief constable, Iain Livingstone, to succeed Sir Stephen House in 2015, but he was passed over for Phil Gormley after unfounded rumours of involvement in a spying scandal. Last month, Livingstone announced he is quitting at the relatively tender age of just 50.

According to a former senior officer, “That is beyond belief and shows how deep the problem is at Police Scotland. Appointments at executive level have been disastrous. Where is the Scottish Government getting advice from?”

There are no local chief constables north of the Border any more so it’s hard for younger officers to compete against more experienced English cops seeking to move north – after all, Scotland is now the second largest force in Britain.

So police morale here is at another
all-time low. What to do?

It may be too late to dismantle Police Scotland as a single force – though many cops favour the creation of three separate forces – north, east and west. But if one central command structure remains, local accountability and decision-making must be restored and the appointment process for the next chief constable democratised.

It’s a tall order. But long overdue.