I wanted to share an essay that I wrote for publication in last week’s Sunday Mail.
The funerals of John Yuill and Lamara Bell last week revealed the pain and shock still felt by the couple’s friends and families.
They also marked a point of significant pressure for those in charge of Police Scotland, who failed them so badly. That is the chief constable Sir Stephen House, the convener of the Scottish Police Authority Vic Emery and the Cabinet Secretary for Justice Michael Matheson.
After the death of Sheku Bayoh in police custody and the previous controversies endured by the single force since Scotland’s eight forces were merged, public confidence in those in charge has undoubtedly been shaken.
Still, for four years now, suggestions to improve the reform of our police service have been rejected.
Instead, they have tried to misrepresent considered criticisms of strategy and policy – whether around the arming of police on routine patrol or stop-and-search targets – into an attack on frontline officers while ignoring the many requests to see a business plan or balance sheet for these reforms.
At the launch of Police Scotland, I observed the success of the force initially would rely on the efforts of constables, their supervisors and staff who would continue to serve the public. For those in command, success would only be delivered in years to come when systems and structures were created enabling, indeed supporting, the front line to carry out their vital duties.
My comments were clearly viewed as grudging and small-minded by those in charge of the change and certainly April 1 – yes, really – came and went without society collapsing. But behind that “success”, the evidence was already gathering, indicating management activity but little in the way of genuine planning and organisation.
Yes, we got new national units for domestic violence, terrorism and organised crime alongside a roads unit and a football unit. But when it came to delivering the bread-and-butter services of call centres and manned stations, we found out too little, too late.
Meaningless consultations were launched as control rooms closed anyway.
A single IT system remained undelivered while redundancies moved ahead with pace.
Superintendents reported a survey in which 37 per cent of members identified a culture of bullying while 85 per cent believed damaging cliques existed at the top of Police Scotland.
Their warnings were ignored by those in charge, who pushed ahead with, what some may
consider, reckless abandon, ignoring the gathering clamour of alarm bells.
If superintendents felt this way and got little response, what about those of lower ranks?
In truth, we don’t know, because a wider staff survey has been delayed for more than a year for one reason or another, none of them entirely convincing.
Last week, former justice secretary Kenny MacAskill delivered an analysis suggesting Police Scotland were better placed than the NHS and councils as austerity bites. His assessment was as frightening in the circumstances as it was superficial.
Along with his government, he is already content to blame an individual’s failure for the M9 failures before an inquiry reports but is, no doubt, thankful the buck no longer stops with him.
There is without doubt something wrong at the heart of this new national police force and it needs urgent attention.
As a supporter of the single force concept, I welcomed the removal of the many chiefs and headquarters functions replicated across the country.
I did, however, expect the seven years of planning to provide the accountabilities, the command and control systems, and the management needed. But, it seems they were quite simply making it up as they went along.
In April, the Scottish Police Federation said “targets designed to give politicians control over police activity” were at the centre of much of the difficulties.
If true, those targets could only be set by the Scottish Government, because opposition politicians only found out about them by responding to constituency complaints and Freedom of Information requests.
Each question posed in regard to targets and changed policies was met by opaque, official responses that said little and amounted to less.
Throughout, I have called for candour and openness. A call ignored or rejected as coming from an MSP with an “agenda”.
I do have an agenda. I want our emergency services to be the best in the world, effective in the provision of services at a cost we can afford.
In all this, and much more, it seems to me the tragedies we have witnessed these past months were “waiting to happen”.
The insistence on good news and positive headlines has blinded those in charge to the failures they enabled through a basic lack of planning.
The funerals this week call loudly for someone to take responsibility for the failures.
Vic Emery, who had a duty to provide effective governance for policing, has already announced his retirement.
Scottish Labour have called for the chief constable to accept his responsibilities. He didn’t fail to handle the call properly but he was, and is, at the head of an organisation who have failed to maintain the necessary systems in support of those who do receive such calls.
I believe many attending the funerals last week of John Yuill and Lamara Bell would agree.