When he sits down at his desk at Police Headquarters for the first time, I doubt Scotland’s new Chief Constable will have communities in the Highlands and Islands or Dumfries and Galloway at the forefront of his thoughts.
Rather, quite appropriately, he will wish to understand the terrorism threat Scotland faces and seek reassurance, from the unsuccessful candidates for the post, that measures are in place to meet the known threats.
Were it not for swingeing cuts imposed by the UK Government I would not have lent my support to a single police service. With 30 years’ police experience I saw a lot of change. There seems little knowledge of the move to single line budgets which took place in the 90’s and saw a burgeoning, often chauffeur-driven, chief officers corps and the Scotland-wide duplication of mysteriously named posts far removed from operational policing.
I am on the Parliament’s Justice Committee and have continually sought assurances from police officers and Government politicians that ‘power’ would be devolved to local communities.
There’s not too much wrong with the structure of the service with strategic issues like counter-terrorism, organised crime and human-trafficking appropriately dealt with centrally; however, industrial scale stop and search and armed officers at village fetes were the result of a central diktat.
Communities across Scotland are all different and to police them equitably does not mean you police them the same.
The Highlands & Islands and Dumfries & Galloway had their own police forces with the highest detection rates in the UK. Their Chief Constables were highly regarded, recognised public figures, held to account by senior, locally appointed Police Committee chairs.
Now, those two areas are ‘divisions’. I know the Divisional Commander in N Division, Chief Superintended Julian Innes, a highly respected, well-kent figure. Each local authority in the Highlands and Islands now has a committee which scrutinises Chief Superintendent Innes, however, some like others over Scotland, have subsumed examining police into a committee with a much wider role. Why might that be?
The move to the single service meant that Shetland Islands Council, rather than send two representatives to Inverness every six weeks to a Joint board which included the two other island authorities and Highland, could have had their own stand-alone police and fire committee.
At one point in the genesis of a single service, word conscious civil servants were loath to suggest those local committees could be scrutiny committees “as this might infer ability to direct finances.” As well as limited ‘pocket-money’, Divisional Commanders have limited ability to direct traffic officers, dog handlers, detective officers, scenes of crime officers and firearms officers. Perhaps, sensing a talking-shop, and aware how the decision to deploy armed officers in the Highlands had cynically by-passed democratic scrutiny – have local authorities just given up?
I heard of one police committee chair who when asked by a peer how things were going replied his committee had been unhappy with the Local Policing Plan but agreed it “because the chief inspector says the legislation says you have to agree it.” Yes, that’s true, but you only agree if you genuinely agree with it!
That true story illustrates the challenge. It was my intervention rather that anything from any police committee which brought about the modified armed police arrangement which means armed officers are no longer sent to routine calls.
If we are to truly get back to community policing, and I fear it won’t be a priority for many, then Police Scotland will have to relinquish its central grip on officers and resources. They must devolve power to those Divisional Commanders to direct all operation officers in their area. This could revitalise locally elected police committees keen to have a say on operational direction.
It was having a solid community base to their policing styles that saw the two forces either end of Scotland be successful and it is possible that can happen again there and elsewhere.
While it’s sensible to remain alert to terrorism and other big issues, let’s remember that all politics is local and all policing is local.
Let’s encourage Mr Gormley to be bold and trust his Divisional Commanders. Experience shows that a return to local community policing will enjoy public support and improve the endless statistics I fear will still be the focus of undue attention.
John Finnie MSP is Justice spokesperson for the Scottish Greens