Open Letter To the new Chief Constable
Dear Mr Gormley
The recent departure of your predecessor, Sir Stephen House, was welcomed by some both within Police Scotland and without. Certainly, Sir Stephen never seemed to be far from controversy during his tenure. There seemed to be constant public concern over police tactics and Sir Stephen’s management style. The creation of Police Scotland was probably never going to be anything other than a baptism of fire but neither Sir Stephen nor Police Scotland as an institution bathed themselves in glory in endeavouring to establish the reputation of Scotland’s first unified police force. In my view, Chief Constable you face a tough job in attempting to turn things around.
I am a supporter of the concept of a single police force in Scotland. Scotland after all is a small country. Criminal justice is the same in one part of Scotland as it is in another. However, most countries have local police as well as national organisations. While retaining the benefits of a national structure through Police Scotland, power and direction must be devolved to quasi-autonomous local police forces, each under the control of a chief constable and subject to local oversight. Police Scotland, in attempting to create national consistency, simply failed to take account of local differences and practices and was insensitive to the needs of local communities.
It is imperative the next chief constable addresses morale within the force. Police Scotland must operate openly but independently of political interference. It must anticipate continual examination and comment in the public interest by our national press. Sadly, the performance of Police Scotland over its two-and-a-half years’ infancy period has left many, public and police officers alike, somewhat bothered and bewildered.
Replacing the leader or trimming the leadership team will not resolve the fundamental weaknesses embodied in the structure of Police Scotland. The new leader needs to be more accountable, more transparent and far more consultative with the community and their staff. Police Scotland has been an organisation without proper oversight for too long and has had to endure cuts from the SNP Government which have left the force under-resourced and over-worked. It would be very dangerous if the Scottish Government now believe that the problems are resolved by the departure of the Chief Constable
The unified force has been embroiled in several scandals over the deployment of armed police on the streets, a stop-and-search policy that at one point saw police in Scotland stopping more than five times the number of people stopped in London and the death of 88-year-old dementia sufferer, Janet McKay, who went missing. She was found dead several days after a novice police officer forgot to pass on details of a sighting.
Attacks on the force came to a head in August after officers took three days to respond to a motorway crash report. When they finally arrived at the scene, John Yuill was already dead and mother-of-two, Lamara Bell, 25, was conscious but she later died in hospital. That scandal led to Chief Constable Sir Stephen House resigning.
The problems in Police Scotland extend far beyond the chief constable. Officers and staff work round the clock to keep people safe. The controversy of Police Scotland’s creation has dragged their reputation unfairly through the mud.
Police Scotland needs to review its management style, operational competence, ethical behaviour and policing priorities. The management style needs to be less top down and more based on positive example. Operational competence needs to demonstrate but humility needs to be shown when things go wrong. Ethical behaviour means critically examining why statistics such as stop and search are far higher in Scotland than elsewhere. Policing priorities need to focus more on safety rather than control.
I still believe Police Scotland can be a great institution but it has to learn from its mistakes and put in place procedures to review its activities honestly and have a willingness to change.
Niall McCluskey is an advocate specialising in criminal law