It’s time for some real scrutiny of our police
The National, by Kevin McKenna
The king of all UK police dramas on television, The Sweeney, still captivates me and it puzzles me that there hasn’t been a small-screen re-make of that wonderful 1970s series. When it first aired I had barely started secondary school and my parents initially deemed the routine violence and occasional bedroom shots of tousled and topless women to be far too rich for my adolescent imagination.
Eventually they had to relent, and so John Thaw and Dennis Waterman became embedded in the memories of my youth. Thaw as Detective Inspector Jack Regan was never better than when he delivered the line: “We’re The Sweeney, son, and we haven’t had any dinner. You’ve kept us waiting, so unless you want a kicking you tell us where those photographs are.”
Ironically, even as my school friends and me were memorising the best dialogue, officers of the real Sweeney, London Metropolitan Police’s elite Flying Squad, were becoming embroiled in one of the biggest police corruption scandals ever seen in the UK. Several of their top officers were convicted and many more were forced to resign. This, in turn, led to Operation Countryman, the huge internal investigation of claims that gangland figures were receiving tip-offs from "friends" inside the Flying Squad warning them about imminent raids.
Although the investigation recommended that several senior officers be charged, none were ever brought and the report has been concealed by every Home Secretary ever since on the grounds of public interest. At least, though, there was a serious internal investigation of the wrongdoing, and it was undertaken by officers from rural constabularies with no connections to their big city brethren. Yet, no-one was really surprised that in our so-called open democracy we are only as "open" and as "democratic" as the state deems manageable.
In Scotland, it can only be a matter of time before our government orders an investigation into the conduct, customs and practices of Police Scotland both in its current form as a single police force and in its previous incarnation as eight separate regional divisions. Hardly a week passes without more chilling examples emerging of how this this highly dysfunctional and sinister organisation chooses to go about its business. Fortunately for them, with cheerleaders such as former Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill and current Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland defending them, they have been able to resist any degree of independent scrutiny.
This is Scotland though, where we like to think we are a bit more open and democratic than in the rest of the UK and where we surely wouldn’t allow a feral and out-of-control police force to be running amok in our midst. Yet that is precisely what is happening before our eyes and under our noses.
In yesterday’s Sunday Mail and Sunday Herald, two papers which are trying to hold the police to account while Holyrood looks the other way, another raft of stories appeared on the familiar theme of a national force careering out of control. The Counter Corruption Squad, a shadowy outfit within Police Scotland and seemingly untouchable, may be about to be shut down following accusations of grotesquely exceeding its brief by snooping on journalists and their sources. It would suit Police Scotland and the government to quietly ditch this cartoon cowboy outfit rather than investigate why it was allowed to operate for so long and in such a fashion. That, though, would look too much like an open and mature democracy holding the police to account. And if there’s one thing we know about Scotland since devolution it’s that the police are to be considered beyond scrutiny by the public and unaccountable to them.
On the same day we also learned that Police Scotland has spent almost £400,000 paying informants since it was established two years ago. The Chief Constable has now been invited to specify if any of society’s "awkward squad" have been nobbled in such a way. You know; the political and environmental groups who are viewed as a pestilence by civic Scotland’s Sanhedrin but who are necessary to keep these same people on their toes. There is as much chance of our top cop acceding to this request as there is of him telling us what secret societies his senior officers all belong to.
In the last three years the rest of us have looked on transfixed as our police force unravels. The charge sheet is as follows: failing to answer questions about the violent death in police custody of Sheku Bayou; the systemic call centre failure to respond to a fatal car crash; the arming of police officers without recourse to Holyrood; the huge numbers of stop and search procedures in our biggest cities and the unlawful surveillance of journalists and their sources and the activities of undercover officers who have been establishing sexual relationships in Scotland with women they suspect of belonging to environmental groups they don’t like the look of.
The behaviour of some senior police officers and their friends in high political and judicial places in running our police force as some sort of third-world private army has besmirched the reputation of the vast majority of honest cops, and this is the biggest tragedy of all. For when society’s trust in the people whom we pay to protect us is at breaking point, one of the pillars that hold up our democracy is in danger of collapse.
Yet rather than address this threat to our democratic principles, MacAskill and Mulholland would rather be pursuing young, working-class men with no previous convictions under the nonsensical Offensive Behaviour at Football legislation.
Perhaps one of Scotland’s talented playwrights or screenwriters could indeed create a Scottish update on The Sweeney. In this, a citizen force, driven to action by the unaccountability of our police, decide to track down and expose them. The race is on to bring them to justice before they are allowed to retire early on a full pension. We could call it CSI Police Scotland.
In the meantime; move along: nothing to see here.