In 2013 the Holyrood SNP government, against the advice of experts, forced the amalgamation of Scotland’s eight police forces into one. Amidst warnings about loss of local accountability and knowledge, the government spoke of budget savings and greater efficiency. Police Scotland became the second largest police force in the UK.
This was supposedly a distinctively Scottish response to the problem of numerous forces in a small country. Distinctive it certainly is. During its short existence Police Scotland has been dogged by controversy, scandal and plunging public confidence.
During that time it has rivalled Scottish Labour for the number of leaders. Sir Stephen House, first Chief Constable, served from October 2012 until November 2015 when he was forced to leave the post early after a series of controversies. These issues included the stop-and-search of juveniles and allegations of officers breaking guidelines about intercepting journalists’ communications.
Perhaps the most embarrassing controversy in Police Scotland’s early days was the forced U-turn on arming officers on routine patrol. Sir Stephen, who had been Chief Constable of Strathclyde which includes Glasgow, authorised the routine arming of a small number of officers. The policy blew up when photographs emerged of officers wearing Glock 17 semi-automatic pistols on their way to a stushie (fracas) in a fast-food establishment in Inverness.
What might have had occasional justification in the former Strathclyde police area was considered appropriate throughout Scotland, even in the Highlands, not a hotbed of violent gun-driven crime. It took concentrated pressure from the public, local authorities and politicians to force the reversal of the gun-carrying policy and for the force to authorise weapons only at incidents involving firearms.
More serious have been incidents involving the deaths of members of the public. Sheku Bayoh died of asphyxiation minutes after being arrested by officers in Kirkcaldy on May 3, 2015. Mr Bayoh was found to have approximately 30 injuries to his head and body. Amidst a welter of conflicting stories surrounding the incident, it took 30 days before the 11 officers involved were interviewed. Public disquiet with the Police Scotland grew due to the length of time it took to investigate the force.
The final straw for the public was the case of John Yuill and Lamara Bell. A police control room was informed of a car going off the M9 near Stirling on Sunday July 5, 2015. The incident was not investigated until the following Wednesday, when the two were eventually found. Mr Yuill had died in the car but Ms Bell was found alive, only to die in hospital a week later.
Following the resignation of Sir Stephen House, Phil Gormley was announced as Chief Constable on January 5, 2015. He lasted until September 8 this year. Chief Constable Gormley and one of his assistant chief constables have been placed on ‘special leave’ following two allegations of gross misconduct.
These allegations of bullying arose from within the Force Executive, the senior management team of Police Scotland. The allegations are being investigated by the independent Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (Pirc). Mr Gormley denies any wrongdoing.
As does Assistant Chief Constable Bernard Higgins who was suspended by watchdogs at the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) on November 24 after ‘a number of criminal and misconduct allegations’. Mr Higgins, who was the head of armed policing in Scotland, and three of his senior subordinates have been accused of using the firing range in an unauthorised manner. Another two officers have been placed on restricted duties.
Deputy Chief Constable Ian Livingston has been given the unenviable task of running the 23,000-personnel force. Having planned to retire this autumn after being surprisingly passed over in favour of Gormley, Mr Livingston, after discussing it with his family, said he felt it was ‘my duty to remain’. Scotland owes Mr Livingston thanks for his sense of duty; without him a bad situation would have been considerably worse after the loss of so many senior experienced staff.
The chaos in Police Scotland is mirrored in the body tasked with overseeing the force, the Scottish Police Authority (SPA). Earlier this year HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland issued a report describing key relationships in the SPA as ‘dysfunctional’.
SPA chair Andrew Flanagan announced that he was stepping down following claims of bullying involving a former board member. Governance at the SPA was investigated by two Holyrood committees after a board member quit amid a row over meetings being held behind closed doors and Mr Flanagan's failure to circulate critical correspondence.
Susan Deacon, former Labour Scottish Health Secretary, caught the hot potato and has been appointed SPA chair. She will need a mighty big broom to sweep the Augean stables of Scottish policing.
Understandably rank and file officers are ‘scunnered’, not only because of the chaos in leadership but because they claim their legitimate concerns regarding their work conditions are regularly disregarded or ignored.
In Scotland, at least, it is true that ‘a policeman’s lot is not a happy one’. Nevertheless, Michael Matheson, SNP Justice Secretary in the Scottish Parliament, is not daunted. With magnificent understatement, Matheson admitted to the Scottish Parliament on November 29 that Police Scotland was facing a ‘challenging set of circumstances’. He added, however, that the single force continued to provide an ‘excellent local service to communities that I believe is the match of policing anywhere in the world’.
Be aware, Police Scotland was intended as a cross-border example. Sir Stephen House, the first Chief Constable of Police Scotland, said: ‘My personal view is that structural change is inevitable down south.’ Perhaps experience teaches that big is not necessarily best.