Scottish Policing on the brink of significant structural change

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The question of how to best hold the police to account is one that has existed since the founding of the very first police force and one, it will be argued, that has yet to find a wholly acceptable answer. Politicians and commentators speak of 'the need for greater accountability of the police' and yet none seems able to articulate or prescribe a process that succinctly addresses that aim.

Police accountability has been described as 'one of the thorniest issues of statecraft' (Oxford Policing Policy Forum, 2006) and has been a contentious issue for decades finding little credible solution. As Goldstein (1977, p.146) remarked, "Those who are concerned with achieving greater accountability search for an ideal plan... no single model is available, nor is it likely that one will evolve in the near future. There are simply too many variables from one community to another. This challenge was recognised as recently as January 2011 by the Scottish Policing Board which noted that "significant work is required to determine the roles and responsibilities of key partners locally and nationally, their relationships and the accountability structures to support any structural change to Scottish Policing."

Regardless of any revision to the model of policing in Scotland, what communities crave are accessible and effective ways to work with police and other responsible agencies to resolve those matters that have greatest impact on the quality of their lives. The concept of police accountability has gathered greater momentum in recent times and there is a plethora of existing arrangements ranging from Parliamentary oversight, formal inspection by audit bodies, local strategic partnership scrutiny, and through ad hoc questioning from local community panels.

This essay will therefore briefly examine three strands. First, the current position in respect of potential changes to the structure of Scottish police. Second, a short exploration of what is meant by accountability and lastly, those factors that may contribute to public confidence and its correlation to credibility of the police.

The structure of Scottish policing

The question implies the likelihood of changes to the current structure of policing in Scotland, and whilst the Rubicon may not yet have been crossed on the issue, it is fair to suggest that Scotland appears to be at the threshold of merging the existing eight forces into a single national police force, or at least a smaller set despite initial resistance from Chief Constables and shifting political positions on the issue. In order to better understand current recommendations in respect of the future of policing in Scotland, it may be appropriate to consider the factors that are influencing the debate and the drivers of reform.

Paddy Tomkins, the former Chief HMIC for Scotland, originally mooted the suggestion of a single force for Scotland in a speech to the Scottish Police Federation in 2007 and although he subsequently distanced himself from the idea, he returned to it in his Independent Review of Policing in Scotland and reiterated the proposal in an interview he gave to The Scotsman on his retirement from HMICS in March 2009. The review's executive summary reasoned that "Police services in Scotland are facing unprecedented levels of change in demand and expectation. These arise both from a local perspective (the impact of Single Outcome Agreements) and from a national and international perspective (through, for example, the increasing sophistication of global crime and increase in terrorism). There is a need to balance locally visible partnership policing, which should remain the cornerstone of policing activity with the policing of less visible, low probability yet high impact crimes and incidents, which require more specialist resources".

The report made a number of recommendations in relation to review and inspection and in particular drew attention to governance of the police service stating "ensuring proper accountability for policing services is important, whether these are provided nationally, regionally or locally in communities. We conclude in this report that there are gaps in the current arrangements and that more support is required to ensure effective governance across the different levels of service delivery". One suggestion of particular interest was the development of a national board to be chaired by the Scottish Justice Minister to coordinate and oversee the response to key national priorities (e.g. violence, terrorism and organised crime) as well as identify 'best value' and deliver greater efficiencies. This led to the creation of the Scottish Policing Board that held its inaugural meeting in November 2009, arguably an example of Scotland leading the way by successfully coordinating the tripartite into a single body. Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said at its launch, "(The Board) will act as a single collective voice for policing, helping to strengthen governance and accountability at a national level."

Chief Officers are split on the idea of a single police service however, and whilst there has been broad support from the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland (ACPOS), some have spoken out against the amalgamation arguing that a single force for Scotland would divert attention away from communities and reduce the impact on crime reduction and prevention. Chief Constable Ian Latimer of the Northern Constabulary stated in an interview with the Northern Press and Journal that "no account has been taken of geography, command needs, resilience, local accountability and community engagement" and that "the savings purported to be achievable by a single force would translate into the loss of thousands of support staff and officers across Scotland, at the expense of safe communities and successful convictions."

Politicians have also needed persuading on the issue. The Scottish Government has maintained that all options are still on the table and it will favour any reform which will safeguard local policing and put "bobbies before boundaries", but it is telling that neither of the leading parties has made direct reference to the issue in their recently published election manifestoes although all major parties have given public backing to the idea. What is clear is that the options being presented to the Scottish Parliament in March 2011 are likely to provoke considerable interest and debate between officials, officers and the public.

The challenges facing the Scottish Police Service are largely based on financial pressures arising from the global economic crisis and Westminster's declared intentions on public service reform and perhaps offer Scotland an opportunity to re-design the traditional policing model in a way that England & Wales still aspires to. Sir Hugh Orde, President of ACPO stated that the majority of chief officers wanted to replace the current 44 forces with larger regional ones better placed to tackle major investigations including terrorism, serious organised crime and internet-based fraud [1] and streamline the negotiation process, although this option has been rejected by the government for now at least. Scotland may be well placed therefore to steal a march on these ambitions and lead on the design of a new model for policing but it remains to be seen how open ACPOS is to the notion of a single Chief constable for Scotland.

Expectations of Accountability

The origins of the modern police service are widely credited to the vision of Sir Robert Peel who introduced the concept of the first modern police force in London in 1829, and in doing so his declared ambition was to establish an ethical body of men which would be accountable for its collective and individual actions in pursuit of the protection of the public. Above all else Peel advocated that the police must be 'an effective authority figure (that) knows trust and accountability are paramount' hence his often quoted principle cited in Lentz & Chaires (2007, p.69) 'The police are the public and the public are the police'. This fundamental philosophy is a reminder that the police operate with the consent of the public to serve the public and not to serve the state or pursue any other kind of organisational agenda.

The roots of policing in the United Kingdom can be traced forty years earlier however to the establishment of the Glasgow City Police in 1779. Despite the apparent failure of the first attempt to institute a municipal police force as a consequence of inadequate funding and the resignation of its only inspector, the force was resurrected in 1789 and the civic Bailies who governed the city somewhat pre-empted Peel's familiar decree and insisted that the force would be run by a Watch Committee of elected citizens, known as Commissioners. As Dinsmor (2000) remarks, "this concept of having the police controlled by 'the people'... was another innovation far ahead of its time and is the basis of the local government Police committee system still in use in all parts of Britain."

Modern day police governance was more firmly established following the 1962 Royal Commission on the Police which was set up in response to public and media criticism of the constitutional position of the police and the lack of accountability of chief officers. The subsequent enactment of the Police Act 1964 and the Police (Scotland) Act 1967 introduced the 'tripartite structure' which shared responsibility for policing between the Secretary of State, the Police and local Police Authorities (Joint Police Boards in Scotland), an arrangement that remains the fundamental approach to public answerability today. In Scotland this has been further refined with the creation in 2009 of the Scottish Policing Board established to identify the key strategic issues for Scotland and ensure services meet the needs of local people, whilst at the same time identifying opportunities for greater financial and operational efficiency.

But to whom exactly should the police be accountable and for what? As Cheung (2005, p.9) observes, police officers at their individual level are accountable for their obligations and acts whilst on duty and at the organisational level are collectively responsible for the performance of the force.

Recent public concerns it could be suggested, have centred on the politicisation of the police and the proliferation of performance targets, the expansion of centralised functions and decreasing operational independence of individual forces, the complexity of large public organisations and efficient use of public funds to the detriment of the relationship with the public. It is open to question that as it is the government that sets budgets, intervenes when targets are not met and has the power to dismiss Chief Officers, it is the government that is able to exert significant influence when questioning or in fact directing the activities of the police.

And what of the public's ability to hold officers to account? Harriet Sergeant (2009) suggests that unlike in the United States where local police chiefs are subject to democratic election, the perception of the public in the United Kingdom is that they hold little true power to influence the type of policing they want and consider the police unaccountable other than to government and themselves. The proposal for directly elected Police and Crime Commissioners in England and Wales in 2012 might adjust that thinking, but as Sergeant (2009, p.10) asserts, "British police were not intended to be servants of the state, but of the communities they serve." As most policing is delivered in communities and with the cooperation of those communities it follows that it should be accountable at the local level, through public oversight groups, local authorities and up to the national level, not vice versa. One of the early observations of the Patten Report (1999, p.22) is that given the difficulty of serving multiple 'masters' it is not surprising that chief officers have a tendency to develop a more direct relationship with the one that appears most influential and this may go some way to explaining the lack of credibility the police service has with the public. Analysis of the most recent Scottish Crime and Justice Survey assessment of public confidence in the police indicated that only 48% of respondents felt confident in the ability of the police to prevent crime. It can be of no satisfaction to any organisation that more than half of its target audience appears dissatisfied with its capability in one of its core areas of responsibility.

Thus, it can be seen that there is much complexity to modern accountability and the police are subject to scrutiny on a number of levels; democratic accountability (Parliament, ministers, political parties, civil servants), legal accountability (the courts, tribunals and public enquiries), financial controls (audits) and to some degree by the public (HMIC(S), councillors, public meetings). Arguably the police could be described as one of the most scrutinised of all public services. What is clear from the literature review is whilst an aspiration imagined in the late 1700's still holds true as the foundation for police scrutiny in the 21st century, existing arrangements are multifarious, complex and potentially competing.

Credibility and responsiveness

The question posed also seeks comment on the best options to deliver a credible and responsive service, and it may be appropriate to question to whom should the service align its loyalty and how will credibility be judged? It is appropriate that those who deliver public services must be accountable to not only those who finance them but also to those who use them.

The ability of forces to respond to local concerns and develop convincing relationships, whilst at the same time manage the risks from national or international threats, is a key consideration here and examination of plans of the 32 Local Authorities in Scotland shows little variance between them with violence, anti social behaviour and minor crimes dominating strategic assessments. Whether in Orkney or Inverness or Glasgow, similar 'quality of life' issues are of deep concern to the public and this may make the question of whether or not there would be support for a single police force for Scotland a somewhat moot point.

As has already been highlighted, there are multiple formal structures already in place to scrutinise police decision making and policy, particularly so when failures in policing place it in the spotlight, and the formation of the Scottish Policing Board goes some way to providing a mechanism to provide reassurance at the national level that critical crime and disorder risks as outlined in the Scottish Strategic Assessment are being effectively addressed. However it is matters of local concern that are most likely to affect whether citizens judge their police service to be credible. As Scottish MP Margaret Smith stated in a parliamentary debate on police accountability, "the big issue for the man or woman on the Corstorphine omnibus is not police accountability but police resources and what the police are doing in our communities. (It is important to know) how they can be held accountable not only for the way in which they spend their significant resources but for the results they achieve with that investment."

Once again Patten (1999; 24) offers an insight, "People need to know and understand what the police are doing and why. This is important if the police are to command public confidence and active cooperation." Monitoring and oversight of the police by community consultation groups, lay visitor schemes, public surveys and to some degree the media or pressure groups are all important constituents of consultation and monitoring and offer opportunities for the police to be accessible to the public. Mawby & Wright (2005, p.12) asserted that police agencies must, "...remain open to constructive criticism; to welcome scrutiny and to remain highly accessible to ideas from the public. Although this may be a painful process, ultimately it will result in stronger community-based policing, which will be able to retain the respect and to secure the help of the public." This second potential advantage may be particularly desirable at a time of reducing public sector resources.

The importance of effective connection with communities was reiterated in the Review of Police Accountability (Blunket 2009, p.48) which recognised that "...probably the most meaningful method of police explaining their work to local citizens is through local PCs and PCSOs understanding the crucial role they play in the course of their routine work."

And it is this notion of improving public confidence and trust through reasoned community engagement and responsiveness to community concerns that perhaps offers a tangible construct to enhancing police credibility. Although the measurement of confidence in England and Wales as an indicator of police performance was scrapped by the Home Secretary when the new coalition government assumed power [2] , it would be prudent to keep sight of those factors and activities that lead to improved faith in the police; effective engagement, fair treatment, successfully tackling crime and disorder and working with other statutory and third sector partners to improve the experience of communities.

This is certainly the experience in London where effective engagement with communities has been identified as the most influential driver of public confidence. As Jackson and Bradford (2010, p.241-248) found in their examination of what contributes to enhanced trust and confidence, "we can conclude that overall confidence measures are very closely related to active (assessments of) police behaviour that relates to personal treatment, particularly fairness, and engagement with the community. By demonstrating their trustworthiness to the public, the police can strengthen their social connection with citizens and thus encourage more active civic engagement in domains of security and policing." In the Metropolitan Police Service, the approach was to adopt a focussed neighbourhood policing model (Safer Neighbourhoods) dedicated to engaging with local people, understanding the concerns of communities and resolving these issues through multi-agency problem-solving activities. As a consequence confidence in the police in London has increased by fourteen percentage points since 2007 [3] , the largest increase of any metropolitan force and an outcome that may go some way to reversing the position where despite falling crime rates, public perception or fear of crime remains high and thus credibility of the police service is undermined.


Whatever the outcome for the future structure of policing in Scotland, the stipulation that the police must be accountable to both the government and the public has been clearly articulated by all who have an interest in the future of the service. Scotland appears well placed to respond in part to that challenge nationally, through the arrangements of the Scottish Policing Board, and locally with Chief Constables acknowledging of the significance of neighbourhood policing. Whilst localism must remain the cornerstone of Scottish policing, a single force is almost certainly the most appropriate option to provide opportunities for savings, reduce bureaucracy, address organised and international crime and improve general service delivery. Defensive comments by chief officers may be viewed by some as an unreasonable attempt to protect existing structures and reluctance to embrace a more streamlined service for Scotland. The credibility of the service nationally may be reflected by the approach to and quality of the ensuing debate.

The research has revealed that deliberation about police accountability extends to the origins of the modern police service and there is evidence of a long-standing desire to ensure policing is, and is seen to be accountable. As yet no single model has been developed that can accommodate the complexity of the multidimensional reporting relationships that exist in modern policing. In view of the nature of policing and its responsibility to the law, Parliament and the public, it is unlikely that a solution to this challenge will easily emerge.

Opportunities to improve responsiveness (and ergo confidence) with the public should be centred on streamlining bureaucracy, consolidating the neighbourhood policing model and ensuring that those who directly interface with the public act together with other responsible partners and focus their effort and activities on resolving community problems. Once the public are convinced that the police are using public money wisely, are 'on their side' and that they are able to successfully influence action against things that matter in their neighbourhoods then improved credibility will surely follow.

"Local government is to be restructured. What an opportunity one would think, for decentralising as much power as possible back to local communities."

James 'Jimmy' Reid (1972)