In the early days of devolution I spent a year as Deputy Justice Minister. It was a time I enjoyed enormously, not least because it meant working with the police. I developed a profound admiration for the way our police officers serve us. Confronted daily by challenges most of us will never face they provide that service with courage, diligence and integrity. That is as true today as it was then.
I also came to the view that most police work was either very strategic and specialised, or very local, and neither was best served by having eight police forces in Scotland. That is why I supported the idea of a single Police Force, but it is also why I believed that within that structure we should have greater, not less, autonomy and accountability at a very local level. That is entirely possible, and Scottish Labour argued for it when Police Scotland was created, but the SNP government used their parliamentary majority to bulldoze through a highly centralised force instead.
This was compounded by SNP ministers’ unrealistic demands for savings, and stubborn adherence to a police numbers promise written on the back of a political fag packet.
As a result we have seen police stations shut, call centres closed, traffic wardens unilaterally removed from towns and villages, and a deaf ear turned to local concerns. Thousands of civilian posts have gone, with SNP ministers hiding behind police officer numbers, even as evidence mounts that officers are being used to backfill civilian jobs, instead of doing frontline police work.
Centrally imposed targets and draconian policies on things such as leave arrangements have sapped morale in the force too.
Worst of all though are changes to policing tactics, and recent tragedies which threaten the public’s trust and confidence in the police. This is the precious heart of policing by consent, so central to Scottish society for so long.
First there was the realisation that some police officers were undertaking routine patrols and responding to routine calls while armed. Assurances that this would stop appear to have been empty promises. Then came figures showing that many more citizens in Scotland, including children, were being stopped and searched by police than even in London, where the practice has long been considered excessive and controversial. Once again the figures, and reassurances, proved less than transparent.
The SNP-created governance structure, not least the Scottish Police Authority, has completely failed to address, or even engage with, these failures.
Now we have two tragic incidents. One, the death in police custody of Sheku Bayoh remains unexplained. The other, the deaths of Lamara Bell and John Yuill who lay for three days in a crashed car is under investigation, but clearly involves a failure in the handling of a call received by the Bilston Glen call centre. That call was not passed on to police in Stirling, where until January the call would have been dealt with locally.
Inquiries are necessary to find out what happened. But one of the reasons I liked working with the police was that senior officers took responsibility for delivering. They must take responsibility when things go wrong too. When trust and confidence in the police is endangered, someone has to be accountable, something has to change. That is why I have said that the Chief Constable should reflect on his position, and resign.
That does not absolve the SNP government though. The Justice Secretary quickly developed a reputation for correcting the mistakes of his predecessor. He did that by cancelling the female “super prison” and backtracking on the abolition of corroboration. However he has failed to tackle the systemic problems of Police Scotland. MSPs have repeatedly raised concerns in Parliament about call centre closures, staff cuts, armed officers and stop and search. We are simply told that everything is fine. The Justice Secretary may have announced an inquiry following the M9 deaths, but he has prejudged it by simultaneously claiming that there are no systemic problems with call handling. This looks more like a search for the long grass than for answers.
Meanwhile both Mr. Matheson and the First Minister have expressed their full confidence in the Chief Constable. In that, they are a dwindling band. SNP ministers have been in government for over eight years. This is their mess and it is time they started sorting it out.