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The State of the Police

September 10, 2011

So there is to be one national police force (and fire service) in Scotland. The reasoning behind this move is, predictably, cost and effectiveness and though there are some who reject the decision, it’s hard to see what harm will come of it. Even those traditionalists who mourn the loss of ‘local’ forces have to admit that most of our police areas only came into play in 1975 so we’re hardly throwing away our heritage. For those who fear a remoteness creeping in to the organisation, the Justice Minister has made it plain that there will still be local area commanders, so, other than an economy on scale for procurement and a simplifying of administrative command structures, it’s difficult to see how everyday interface with the police on our streets will be affected.

However, the 8 week consultation period maybe gives us cause for reflection on how we police and organise our emergency services and whether the traditional model could not be changed to our benefit.

When you view other nation’s policing arrangements, it becomes clear that the way we police is based greatly on the historical foundation of the services. Scotland’s police forces were originally privately instituted by insurance companies – for obvious reasons, but in countries around us the story may be different, and it was interesting to hear frequent comment during the recent riots in England, about there being a ‘different relationship’ between police and community in Scotland

In Ireland, for instance, the Republic’s police force was born out of the violence of a War of Independence and a bitter and divisive civil war. It’s easy to see why the fledgling state would wish to establish a force that was unarmed and centrally controlled, as they sought to bring peace to areas that had been under republican rather than British rule for some years. The people had had enough of control by gun and quasi-military organisation, they needed something different. So An Garda Siochana, the Civic Guard, was established to keep the civilian peace. It was also important to the founding fathers that it be distanced as far as possible from the frequently hated and mistrusted armed forces that pertained under British rule – the Royal irish Constabulary and the Dublin Metropolitan Police. In size, the Republic is rather smaller than Scotland but has a similar mix of urban and rural territory. Dublin based national units such as the Garda Technical Bureau can be dispatched to serious crime scenes relatively quickly, and there is no costly duplication of specialist units. This would suggest that, with modifications, a similar operation could be effective in Scotland.

In France, there is a model which has resonance in many parts of the world. There are local town or city police, the armed national police of the Gendarmerie and the Surete, detective branch, again at national level, and also the CRS, whose main job appears to be taking on riots and protests! In other words, different organisations to fulfil different roles, under a national umbrella police network.

There is a nod in the direction of this arrangement in England with the ‘national’ role played by Scotland Yard and some centralised or regional crime squads and specialist agencies. Some areas also have Police Community Support Officers. However, their remit states quite clearly that they are not police officers, nor do they have police officers’ powers. When I’ve seen them in action, I’ve always been reminded of a line in a Bill Cosby routine, shouted at a hospital porter: ‘Hey you! Almost a doctor!’ They seem to hover somewhere between litter patrols and traffic wardens, and though their raison d’etre – to reassure the public with an increased and obvious presence on the streets – is commendable, the limit to their powers and their need to continually call for ‘real police’ back up doesn’t seem all that helpful.

I’ve often thought that the American system might be helpfully adapted to Scotland’s needs. Similarly to the French system, it has a tiered policing structure – from local to national – and one which attempts to address the needs of individual communities. Obviously the major cities have their own forces, but outside of the metropolitan areas the law is administered by quite distinct providers.

In rural America, each town will have its town police. They operate within the town boundaries and deal with what might be termed ‘every day offences’: traffic, domestic disputes, assault, burglary and so on. The area around the town – the county, is served by a sheriff’s department and they would deal with similar levels of crime in country areas and be available to support town police if necessary. Interestingly, the sheriff stands for election, so there is a direct link between the operation of the force and what local people want.

Over and above this local policing structure are the State Police who investigate major crime throughout the state and usually provide specialist units to support local forces. National issues are dealt with by the FBI as a federal force.

I don’t think these arrangements make policing necessarily ‘better’ but such organisation does seem to be suited to the population being served. In Scottish terms, it is possible to envisage, say, Auchtermuchty, with a town force for local issues, backed up by a Fife and Perthshire force and with access to national policing when necessary. A pub assault would be dealt with by town police, a farm fire by the ‘sheriff’, and if you were speeding on the M9, it would be Fife and Perthshire or perhaps the national traffic force who would stop you.

This type of organisation wouldn’t call for more police, just a redistribution of tasks. In costs, it’s clear that a local policeman wouldn’t have the salary or training of a state policeman, so savings might be possible there, as well as the already clear move to centralised specialist units.

Some claim that local policing has the handicap of everyone knowing the members of the local force, and, indeed, in Ireland for many years, if not still, it was policy that Guards couldn’t serve in their own locality because of their connections to the community. It’s a balance I suppose – the Irish system led to country lads trying to police Dublin and city slickers out in the sticks, which is maybe not the best way to do it. In America, from what I’ve witnessed, locals are a benefit. You are less likely to speed if you know Mrs Schwarz’s boy is at the town boundary tonight, and the police, in turn, have a good working knowledge of who does what in the neighbourhood. ‘Working for your community’ becomes much more real if you went to school with the folks you are protecting, I suppose.

And just to toss one more hand grenade into the consultation process. In my teenage years I lived in Southport in Lancashire. Until it lost its status as a county borough, its firemen were also the ambulancemen, with the same training. It worked well.

Just a thought.

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