The SNP’s single state police force has failed us

The SNP’s single state police force has failed us

by Max Young
article from Friday 19, March, 2021

ON THE 7TH OF AUGUST 2012, the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act received royal assent. It was the most radical step yet taken in public sector reform and served as the SNP’s flagship justice policy. On April 1st, 2013, the merger of Scotland’s eight regional police forces and the SCDEA, Scotland’s specialised crime and drug unit, was brought into force and Police Scotland was born.   

It seemed the perfect manifestation of the SNP’s dream – to centralise and to control. To scrap all that is local and put in its place a new central organisation that the party can better manipulate – one on which to stick that great immutable banner of “Scotland.” The nationalists published their Outline Business Case in September 2011 proposing the reform. A full business case was not prepared, and after a public consultation that, incidentally, involved no mechanism for front-line police officers or staff to provide their perspective, the legislation passed with the support of Scottish Labour.  

It is no surprise that, when police officers were later asked about this process, they were bitter enough. “When the discussion came about whether it was a good idea to have a single police force they didn’t actually ask anybody who worked in it,” said one officer. Others were unconvinced of the effectiveness of centralisation – they had built their practice around community engagement and local policing. Long-standing local relationships have been time and again proven to provide wide-ranging benefits to policing – a designated officer in a geographically bounded area becomes a familiar face to the local population, acquiring an in-depth understanding of the area and those who live in it. As one officer put it, “you felt that that was your own wee empire if you like and that was yours to look after and you would take it personally to a degree if there were issues in your area it was left to you to solve it.” It is remarkable the SNP failed to consult the police themselves before pushing through this sweeping reform – having the ability to assess how a change is operationalised and experienced the street level is crucial to any change of this kind.   

Localised police forces deal with local crime patterns which differ between areas. It is not the case that the same style of policing can be applied as successfully on a national level. For example, Strathclyde Police in 2009/10 had to contend with Scotland’s highest rate of non-sexual crimes of violence, which stood at 31 per 100,000 people. The second highest, Lothian and Borders, only saw 19. Conversely, crimes of indecency in the same period were a much greater problem for Grampian Police and the Fife Constabulary than they were for Strathclyde. While we can see that Glasgow is beset by crimes of violence, Edinburgh is plagued by the highest level of crimes of dishonesty – the top 5 hotspots for housebreaking and 11 of the worst 20 areas can still be found in the Lothians.  

With the appointment of Stephen House, Strathclyde’s Chief Constable since 2007, as Police Scotland’s first Chief Constable in 2013, what we saw was essentially a national takeover by Strathclyde Police. Differences in management and conflict within police departments soon proved that a struggle lay ahead. Lothian Police’s pragmatic approach towards prostitution in Edinburgh, allowing council-licensed saunas that were commonly thought to host the practice to continue, did not sit well with the Glaswegian management, which had a zero-tolerance approach in their city. The “sauna raids” soon followed, breaking a philosophy of policing that had existed in Edinburgh for more than a decade and casting aside harm reduction as a principle.   

Moreover, Edinburgh Police’s specialist housebreaking unit, introduced specifically to tackle the local issue and highly successful, was closed down by the new management. Detection rates for housebreaking fell from 40% to just 17%. A more embarrassing example of this deficiency dates back to 2014, when police officers were observed carrying handguns while on regular duties – armed police officers had been rolled out to all parts of Scotland, rural areas included. Police Scotland’s management defended the move, stating that all parts of Scotland should have “equal access” to armed police. The same philosophy seems to apply to being stopped and searched in the street without justification, a policy that saw 3,172 searches carried out on children below the age of 15 between April 2018 and June 2019.   

The Scottish Police Authority was set up along with Police Scotland to act as its oversight body. It too has been tainted, this time by its appointment procedure, which leaves it an SNP plaything with toothless and unpopular management that has a habit of quitting before it can get anything done. Scotland’s regional police forces used to be part-council funded with councillors sitting on the local police boards, which allowed for a level of local accountability that the SNP obliterated. Scrutiny of the police now barely exists, to an extent that arguably allows for the Nationalists to “pressurise” Police Scotland on political issues.  

Has Police Scotland at least managed to increase the crime clear up rate? An analysis of clear up rates in the four years prior to centralisation and those following shows there was only one meaningful change in the rates for crime groups: a rise in the clearing up of crimes relating to “fire-raising and vandalism.” For every other crime group – except "sexual crimes", where there has been a fall in clear-up rates – there has been no statistically significant effect.   

The SNP’s police reform has been a failure. Police Scotland has been marred by Chief Constables forced to step down after major scandals and bullying allegations,  a failed IT system reform that failed miserably to achieve any of the predicted £200 million savings from the merger, and an almost unbelievable spend of £8 million on Brexit “contingency planning” in 2019, dedicated to preparing for “civil unrest” after the UK’s departure from the EU.   

A report on the centralisation move by the Justice Committee of the Scottish Parliament was highly critical, identifying "systemic problems" created as a result of the centralisation. It stated that poor financial management, unclear lines of responsibility and a failure to focus on the views of officers and staff lay at the root of many of the problems faced by Police Scotland. 

The pragmatic local touch of police services has been lost by a blundering super-management as front line police are forced to perform office jobs instead of being out on the street due to budget cuts. But improving service was never the aim of the SNP, instead it achieved its aim of giving policing that sacred “Scottish” brand it values so highly above service delivery in its drive for independence. 

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Max Young is an undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh 

This article is an updated version with new material of one that first appeared on Monday 1 February 2021. 

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