Mandy Rhodes: Whatever is going on at the top, police cuts threaten the real crisis

Iain Livingstone (Sandy McCook)
Iain Livingstone (Sandy McCook)

THE irony was surely not lost on the police officers being honoured for their bravery.

While their courage was being saluted at the Scottish Police Federation Bravery Awards in an Edinburgh hotel last week, just 24 hours earlier, politicians in the neighbouring Scottish Parliament had been arguing about whether their service was in crisis.

For these courageous men and women, whose impressive roll call of public service that had gone way beyond the call of duty to save lives, disarm assailants and talk people down from attempts at their own life, the question was: “Crisis, what crisis?”

But while police officers up and down the country get on with the job, the question marks hanging over the leadership of Police Scotland persist.

With the chief constable on “special leave” following allegations of gross misconduct and bullying, an assistant chief constable and three other senior officers suspended over accusations of criminal misconduct, deputy chief constable Iain Livingston persuaded out of retirement to hold the fort, and all compounded by the departure of the chief executive and chair of the police governing body, the Scottish Police Authority (SPA), it’s difficult to conclude anything other than there is something very wrong at the top.

So, for justice secretary Michael Matheson to respond to clear concerns about leadership with a mealy-mouthed admission there is a “challenging set of circumstances”, before saying that recorded crime in Scotland is at a 43-year low and Police Scotland is the envy of the world, was a mistake.

Police Officers honoured for outstanding bravery at the Scottish Police Federation Awards

No wonder he was then accused of being in denial.

This is no time for complacency but neither, is it a time for hyperbole.

Trouble at the top and the excellence of hard-working, dedicated ordinary policemen and women are not mutually exclusive and it is at best, disingenuous for the justice secretary to answer concerns over leadership with plaudits for policemen and woman on the street.

As the bravery of celebrated ordinary officers testifies, our police force continues to protect, defend and prevent, no matter what is going on at HQ.

It is equally absurd to argue a handful of departures at the head of an organisation which employs more than 20,000 means institutional meltdown.

Police Scotland was the largest public-sector merger in generations and it was always going to be messy but it faced a perfect storm.

Politics – both party political and institutional – combined with austerity meant flaws were embedded in the very foundations and need to be dug out.

On the ground, police continue to do a remarkable job while affected by the same financial constraints as elsewhere within the public sector but the establishment of a single force has provided a single focus of blame.

And while the response from politicians and the media to a set of serious but unrelated issues has arguably been disproportionate, the danger of focusing on a convenient Aunt Sally is that it deflects from a critical issue about ongoing cuts within Police Scotland.

Those savings have the potential to eat away at the morale of the bobbies on the beat and that is when a real crisis can happen.