Research warns of ‘internal structural disconnects’ within Police Scotland

Written by Alan Robertson and published in Holyrood on 15/04/2016

Rollout of specialist units within Police Scotland has contributed to actions “counter-productive to local policing” which local commanders have had little control over, a new study has found.

Researchers assessing local scrutiny arrangements heard concerns from officers of “internal structural disconnects” within the single force that are preventing local commanders from “resolving local problems that emerged out of national policy”.

One divisional commander said: “We have lost the boundaries of the previous forces with Police Scotland but we have created new boundaries with the specialist forces that we never had before.”

The authors – all from the University of Edinburgh – conclude that “formal routes of ‘escalation’” need to be “clarified and set out” both within Police Scotland and between local scrutiny committees and civilian oversight body, the Scottish Police Authority.

Police Scotland said it is on the verge of finalising arrangements that will allow figures on local scrutiny committees a “clear route and opportunity to raise concern or unresolved issues” with a member of the force’s senior leadership team, likely to be an assistant chief constable in the first instance.

It comes just weeks after SPA chair Andrew Flanagan published his review of police governance, claiming the “overriding perception has been that local communities are not being listened to and that local commanders do not have enough autonomy to make local decisions”.

Flanagan’s review coincided with a project supported by the Scottish Institute for Policing Research that investigated three scrutiny committees in different parts of the country as well as the internal structure of Police Scotland.

Each of the force’s 13 divisions across Scotland are headed up by a divisional commander with individual local area commanders looking after local policing areas that sit within each division.

“DCs [divisional commanders] and LACs [local area commanders] in the three sites expressed a fairly consistent view that internal escalation processes between local DCs and Police Scotland’s corporate executive may need to be reviewed to ensure that specialist units are responsive to local concerns,” says the study, entitled Partners in Scrutiny.

Roads policing in one of the three sites – none of which were named – was offered as an example after officers moved in from other regions and operated under the command of a police chief above the divisional commander’s head.

“There was a perception locally that these officers issued tickets in line with a different policing culture and performance targets, whereas previously the local force focused less on tickets and more on engagement with the drivers with a view to changing driving behaviour,” adds the study.

“This new practice was seen as counter-productive to local policing and resulted in challenging questions at the LSC [local scrutiny committee], but with no escalation route to satisfactorily resolve the matter.”

Police Scotland chief constable Phil Gormley, who took over earlier this year, has already acknowledged that local police commanders need to be given a greater say in influencing decisions taken by the force at a national level.

Gormley told a Holyrood committee in February that there was “work to be done” by Police Scotland on ensuring that decisions taken at the top of the organisation heed local concerns.

Consideration should also be given as to what additional training could be given to members of local scrutiny committees around “more technical aspects” of their work, researchers added.

Police Scotland assistant chief constable Kate Thomson said: “The report produced by the Scottish Institute of Policing Research acknowledges the manner in which local police scrutiny arrangements have evolved over the past three years and includes the productive working relationships that have developed between participants; the responsive and forthcoming manner in which local police commanders have provided tailored local information contextualised alongside statistical data; and the engagement council participants have had in respect of local police plans allowing them to make a significant contribution to their development.

“To further enhance those arrangements and to address specific concerns that there are limited occasions when a issue impacting on an area cannot be resolved locally, Police Scotland is in the process of finalising resolution arrangements which will provide local authority scrutiny panels with a clear route and opportunity to raise concerns or unresolved issues with a chief officer.

“To develop our approach we have regularly sought advice, guidance and feedback from COSLA and we are now working closely with the Scottish Police Authority to ensure that the proposed arrangements align with the findings from their recent governance review.

“Our proposed approach to resolution forms part of wider improvements intended to continue to build trust and confidence between Police Scotland and local government through the development of effective and transparent two-way engagement.

“This includes the continued empowerment of local policing commanders to work alongside local scrutiny committees to ensure that they are updated on national issues and where appropriate are provided with the opportunity to scrutinise and be consulted on policies and decisions considering this in respect of the likely impact locally.

“This may include providing access to, or provision of information from, specialist national assets to allow more effective scrutiny of how national assets are supporting local policing delivery.”

NOTE: the study this article is based on (conducted through SIPR and concluded in March 2016) is located here