MSPs claimed his “conduct” was having an impact on the force amid controversies surrounding stop and search and armed police.
John Finnie, an independent MSP and former police officer, grilled Sir Stephen and suggested a series of high-profile rows involving the chief constable were undermining the good work being carried out by the police.
At a justice sub-committee meeting at Holyrood, the
Highlands and Islands MSP asked Sir Stephen if his conduct was having an impact on Police Scotland and suggested that senior officers had lost confidence in him.
Referring to rows over the number of consensual stop and searches on children, the closure of police counters and the appearance of armed officers on routine duties, Mr Finnie said: “Isn’t that part of the problem, chief constable, that because there is an awful lot of good work going on, it’s being lost because you’ve become the story?”
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Sir Stephen said he would rather not be on the front pages of national newspapers, but added that the publicity would not deflect him from the fact that police officers and staff were doing a “fantastic job” and that crime was down.
Mr Finnie replied by asking Sir Stephen if he was doing a fantastic job. Sir Stephen replied that he was trying his best before Mr Finnie asked him if he felt that the way he was “conducting himself” was “impacting on the efficiency or effectiveness of Police Scotland”.
The Chief Constable said he did not believe that was the case and claimed that public confidence was high.
Mr Finnie replied: “Have you asked your senior officers if they have confidence in you? Because some of them are quoted in the press today saying that’s not the case.”
Earlier Sir Stephen said he did not accept that trust in the police was “ebbing away” when he was challenged by Liberal Democrat justice spokeswoman Alison McInnes.
Ms McInnes said: “The level of trust is ebbing fast.”
Sir Stephen replied: “I don’t accept the premise that confidence is ebbing away. Confidence levels remain high.”
Sir Stephen was called in front of the committee following concern about the high number of under-12s stopped and searched by police.
Six months ago, Police Scotland said it had ceased so-called “consensual” stop and searches on under-12s, but figures released to the BBC this month suggested that hundreds had taken place since then.
Sir Stephen had claimed to the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) watchdog that officers had been forced to release the data by Scotland’s Information Commissioner (SIC) at a time when it still needed correction and was unreliable.
An exchange of e-mails between the SIC and the force subsequently suggested that no such pressure had been exerted and the commissioner said the figures had been handed over voluntarily.
Conservative MSP Margaret Mitchell yesterday described the mix-up as “rather breathtaking”.
“You’re the chief constable,” she said. “The responsibility for communicating with the rank-and-file from the top down rests with you. Clearly there has been a huge communication problem here.”
Sir Stephen said he accepted her comments. During the session, the chief constable also indicated that voluntary searches would continue, even though it was against police policy to do so.
“It is a judgment call for operational officers. It is their decision. It is them who exercise the power – not the chief constable,” Sir Stephen said.
“We don’t want a situation in Scotland where officers are carrying out wholesale consensual searches to under-12s.
“To that end we put in place a policy that saying we don’t want to do consensual searches of under-12s.
“It is policy. It is not law. On a number of occasions, officers have stepped outside the policy, they have not stepped into illegality.
“What we have done is ask them to explain, why have you done that? If there is a fair explanation then so be it.”
Meanwhile, the committee also heard that around 20,000 stop and search records had been lost from the Police Scotland computer system because someone had “pressed the wrong button”.