The announcement on Sunday of Lamara Bell’s death is a sad outcome for the only ray of hope in this terrible situation. The sufferings experienced this week by the friends and families affected by the A9 accident near Stirling are horrifying. The discovery that Police Scotland had failed for days to respond to a telephone call for assistance and thereby had effectively abandoned Lamara Bell for three days, lying alone, critically injured beside her dead boyfriend John Yuill, must have been extremely uncomfortable for all those in authority and should by now finally chime a warning to all of them.
The subsequent apology offered by the chief constable days later I feel sure was the result of long internal discussions about how to handle the situation. After all it was only last month Sir Stephen described to his Police Authority those of us who have commented on the problems at the heart of Police Scotland as merely ‘people who want to make some headlines [and] just have another go at Police Scotland and the service centres’.
In that light his belated apology on Friday must have been a bitter pill for this chief officer to swallow and an apology I truly wish had not been necessary. But under the supervision of the Scottish Police Authority, Police Scotland has become engrossed in the task of handling the media, controlling the message and issuing positive statements instead of serving the actual needs of the public. Mr House in his apology said that he could not go into the facts of the situation because the circumstances were being investigated. Yet he felt able to point a finger by saying an ‘experienced officer’ at Bilston Glen call centre answered the relevant call in six seconds reporting the accident and that the details were not recorded in the police systems for a response. As with previous incidents causing recent public concerns such as the death of Sheku Bayoh, the authorities have adopted a habit of releasing only those details that suit before hiding behind a ‘protocol’ allegedly preventing further information being forthcoming to the community they serve.
In my view such responses indicate that there are few signs that the command team at Police Scotland, the Scottish Police Authority or the SNP Government are capable of acknowledging the reality behind the current situation. The stark and indisputable truth in this case reveals further evidence that police systems, culture and structures are failing to properly support those on the front line across our national police service.
For four years now, I and others, (merely seeking that headline), have tried to encourage proper accountability and governance of all things ‘policing’ in this new service. Controversies around the removal of more than 2000 staff jobs, some in control centres, through redundancies, stop and search, police use of firearms and the hasty closure of control rooms across the country have all been dismissed by the SNP Government as attacks on those working hard for the public on the front line. Nothing could have been further from the truth!
At every stage Government Ministers supported by their back benchers have cooed over the additional 1000 police officers they provided the Service as the solution to every problem. Lamara Bell and John Yuill desperately needed just one officer when their car crashed yet Police Scotland failed to deliver that officer. It took two days for the chief constable to formulate his brief statement whilst neither the Police Authority nor a Government Minister sought to step forward to enlighten the public as to their intentions in this matter.
In the absence of proper management structures, levels of responsibilities, effective IT systems and true accountabilities no organisation can operate a culture designed to demonstrate good policing.
We’ve had denials of target setting from the Executive of the Force along with various commitments on stop searches and police use of firearms from senior officers – all found to be worthless. We have had allegations of a culture of bullying and stress from Superintendents in this new force. We’ve even had allegations in the Herald newspaper alleging cheating on the prestigious UK Command Course by a member of Police Scotland’s Executive team!
Without a strong culture encouraging candour and integrity demonstrated by their actions and not solely their statements, it will remain impossible for the chief officers of the Service to maintain the confidence of communities across Scotland.
It is to be hoped the events on the A9 this week will bring about a sea change in the way in which governance and oversight is delivered across Scotland. Something positive must be rescued from a sorry state of affairs that currently affect those charged with delivering policing in Scotland. It cannot all be left to the front line to deliver. Lamara Bell and John Yuill deserve nothing less as their legacy.
It’s time for those in command to take responsibility for their duties, for those ‘in charge’ at the Police Authority to deliver good governance, for Government Ministers to stop worrying about positive messages and ensure the Authority delivers on its responsibilities and for those in Parliament to continue to ask the difficult questions and expect honest responses. Only then might we deliver policing by consent and thereby a confidence in the Police as an organisation fit for purpose.