Police body criticises "frightening levels of political ignorance” on stop and search
Alan Robertson, Hollyrood
Rank and file police officers in Scotland last night warned of “frightening levels of political ignorance” in the debate over stop and search.
The Scottish Police Federation has criticised both politicians and the single service’s leadership in a withering open letter to MSPs.
However, Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson has claimed members of the public are being "left in the dark" on changes to the way police in Scotland work.
Police Scotland is considering scrapping consensual stop and search amid renewed controversy over use of the tactic.
The single force confirmed last week that it is to review a range of measures to replace non-statutory stop and search, which accounted for seven out of ten searches conducted in the first year of the single force.
“The events of the past week have resulted in a frightening narrative that politicians believe that they are in a position and indeed have a role to play in determining how and when police officers exercise their right to stop and search someone,” writes SPF General Secretary Calum Steele.
“It is also alarming to read and hear reports that politicians consider that they are in a position to reach an agreement with or direct the Chief Constable of the day as to how and when such powers will be used.”
An amendment to the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill is to be laid this week by the Scottish Liberal Democrats which would seek to outlaw non-statutory stop and search.
“The debate on ‘non-statutory’ or ‘consensual’ searches has unearthed frightening levels of political ignorance,” adds Steele.
“It is well understood that for the most part we police our nation by consent not by force and for this reason our courts have consistently found that when citizens voluntarily consent to be searched that not only is such practice within the law but that occasions where a person gives consent, the interaction does not amount to a search in the more formal sense of the word.
“It seems to me that this is a determination based entirely on common sense. Are we really suggesting citizens should no longer be able to co-operate with police officers on a voluntary basis?”
Consensual stop searches came under focus once again after figures obtained by BBC Scotland indicated that consensual searches on children under the age of 12 were still taking place despite an assurance almost eight months ago that the practice would cease.
And the Federation General Secretary suggests Police Scotland has to carry “much of the responsibility for the hostility” towards the tactic. The SPF has repeatedly suggested figures have been driven up by a target-led culture, one which the force’s senior leadership refutes.
“The numbers driven target approach to this area of policing was ill conceived and resulted in attention being directed towards meaningless numbers rather than the sensible objective of crime prevention and detection,” writes Steele.
“It is of course understandable and entirely correct that politicians question the use of any non-statutory search of children and all police officers should be able to account for such occurrences.
“The events of the past week however tend to suggest that there is no interest in hearing such accounts, as a determination has already been made that any rationale provided will be insufficient.”
Steele says lessons had to be learned over use of stop and search within Police Scotland, though these need to extend beyond the force to parents as well.
“The greatest lesson of all however must stem from the historic warnings that a single police service in Scotland could become subject to political interference,” he writes. “How quickly these concerns appear to have faded from the memories of those who now seek to exert what they so prophetically warned against.”
The Scottish Conservatives, which last week called for a fundamental review of oversight arrangements, this morning claimed the Scottish Police Authority has "too often had to play catch up".
Advance notice of large policy changes should be shared with the SPA by Police Scotland and then relayed to other relevant bodies in future, said Davidson.
The Authority’s recent inquiry on armed policing recommended that Police Scotland "ensure advance engagement with the SPA over policies or proposals which are likely to have a significant public impact" while setting out in a public document a "formal agreement on early and effective engagement".
“The problem here isn’t political ignorance, it’s the fact that the public are being left in the dark when massive changes are brought in," added Davidson.
“If the Scottish Police Federation can’t see there’s a problem here, then the arrogance we are seeing among senior police figures is clearly worse than we feared.”