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The Thinning Blue Line – Alison Payne

This article by Alison Payne appeared in Scottish Policy Now.

Reform Scotland’s recent report, The Thinning Blue Line, considered the structure of policing in Scotland. Just because the law is set centrally, doesn’t mean that we need to have a centralised police system and it is vital that there is greater room for flexibility. The report also questioned the success of the Scottish Government’s 1,000 extra police officers policy.

Merger or takeover?
Scotland is a diverse country and it is unlikely that in any public service area one uniform policy and practice will work across the country. What works and is needed in Glasgow is unlikely to be the same on Skye. That does not mean to say that you can’t have one main set of laws applied throughout the country, simply that the problems and priorities will differ depending on where you are.

Reform Scotland argued against the centralisation of the police. While we agreed with the need for a more efficient and centralised police force to deal with higher level crimes, we believed that it was essential that this operated alongside local police forces which responded to, and were accountable to, people in the areas in which they operated. A number of other European countries, such as France, Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium, operate multi-layered policing systems which allow for a strong central police force as well as local police forces.

Scotland is a diverse country and it is unlikely that in any public service area one uniform policy and practice will work across the country.

It is still too early to comment on whether Police Scotland has met its goals in terms of efficiency savings. However, issues such as the arming of the police indicate that there is a danger that the merger is becoming a takeover as Strathclyde’s policing practices are rolled out across the country, as opposed to maintaining local diversity.

However, another wholesale police re-organisation is unlikely and therefore, with Police Scotland still relatively new, it would be better to find a way to re-inject localism into the existing structure. Reform Scotland believes that this can be done through the funding and governance structures.

If local authorities are to have any meaningful input into policing in Scotland they must contribute toward the cost of policing and there needs to be a change back to the old system where there is roughly a 50/50 split in funding policing between local authorities and the Scottish Government. This would allow for greater accountability to local communities as well as an increased actual input into local policing.

In terms of governance, to ensure that the need for diversity and flexibility could be accommodated by a single police force it would be necessary to have a representative from each local authority on the Scottish Police Authority.

1,000 extra officers
As well as considering the funding and governance structures, Reform Scotland’s report also calls on the Scottish Government to review its 1,000 extra officers policy.

While the fall in recorded crime in Scotland over recent years is to be welcomed, Reform Scotland is concerned that, despite this fall, fewer crimes are actually being cleared up.

Reform Scotland published new research in our recent report, The Thinning Blue Line, that shows the number of crimes being cleared-up has fallen from 198,985 in 2006/07 to 139,306 in 2013/14 – a drop of 30%. At the same time the number of crimes cleared up per full-time-equivalent police officer has fallen from 12 in 2006/07, to 8 in 2013/14.

In response, some have pointed to the improvement in clear-up rates. However, the clear-up rate is not an accurate measure of success and can just reflect a fall in crime. For example, if in an area there were 100 crimes in year one, with a clear-up rate of 40% and in year two there were 70 crimes, with a clear-up rate of 50%, the actual crimes solved would fall from 40 crimes to 35 crimes – and this is what has happened in Scotland.

Some have suggested that the fall in the number of crimes being cleared up is to be expected because crime itself has fallen. However, that argument would only stack up if there were no unsolved crimes in Scotland. That is not the case. In 2013/14 there were 130,000 unsolved crimes in Scotland, so there is certainly room for improvement.

It is important to stress that Reform Scotland does not think that this is because our police officers are not doing a good job. Rather, it is likely to be a consequence of how they are being deployed. If officers have to spend more time dealing with paperwork and backroom duties, they inevitably have less time to spend on solving crime.

There have always been a number of people employed by the police carrying out civilian roles, with previous administrations seeking to expand this process of civilianisation in an attempt to both save money and free up police officers’ time.

However, Reform Scotland is concerned that the Scottish Government’s 1,000 extra officers pledge has reversed this trend. In recent years, it could be argued that there has been a move away from civilianisation in order to be able to afford the commitment.

Unison, which represents civilian police staff, has suggested that this policy, combined with pressures to find savings, has led to Police Scotland getting rid of civilian staff and, as a result, police officers having to fill those roles. If police officers have to spend more time in back offices, as opposed to being on patrol, it could help explain the drop in crimes being cleared up. It is worth noting that in November 2014 George McIrvine, secretary of UNISON police staff Scotland branch, commented “The police service will not survive this outdated political pledge, it is death by 1,000 officers.”

As a result, Reform Scotland would urge the Scottish Government to review the 1,000 extra officers commitment to see if it is actually delivering value for taxpayers’ money. It is quite possible that changing it, or dropping it altogether, could actually lead to an increase in the number of police out on the beat. After all, it is not just the number of police officers that is important, but how they are deployed.

It is important to highlight that removing the pledge does not necessarily mean there would be a reduction in police officers. Instead, removing the pledge would give greater operational freedom to the police to use resources in the way it feels is most effective – this may be to maintain existing police numbers, but it may be to deploy some of the budget elsewhere. However, deployment should be an operational, rather than a political, decision.

We believe that Reform Scotland’s research raises questions over policing policy in Scotland and, as a result, we hope either the current or next Scottish Government will consider this seriously