A team of more than 300 police officers set up for incidents relating to Brexit has been “very heavily deployed and busy” since it started last week, Police Scotland has revealed.
The dedicated unit for Brexit-related emergencies has already been dispatched to deal with protests and “increasing febrile” behaviour in the streets, according to Police Scotland Deputy Chief Constable Will Kerr.
Funding for the additional officers is a source of concern, with the force’s budget revealed to be facing a large shortfall.
Bosses have said the flexibility of the unit to respond to incidents across Scotland is proving useful.
Speaking at a meeting of the Scottish Police Authority, Mr Kerr said the reserve force, made up of 300 officers and 12 public support units, started early on Monday March 18.
It “has already proven to be quite a prescient decision because it’s been operationally very heavily deployed and busy over the course of the last week and a half”, he said.
Mr Kerr added: “Last Friday alone there were three almost like flash protests at sites across Edinburgh, both March for Europe and a separate march at the Parliament.
“We were able to draw down very quickly on this with an additional, very mobile national asset and move them to that protest site as quickly as possible.
“We were also able to use the mobile reserve to police the Scottish Defence League march in Edinburgh on Saturday as well.”
Addressing increased tensions following the EU referendum, both in public and on social media, he said: “We’re seeing a lot of discussion becoming increasingly heated and so having that operational flexibility is going to be incredibly valuable over the next few weeks.”
Protecting politicians from the potential wrath of disgruntled people was also cited as a key issue for police.
Mr Kerr said: “People have a right to protest lawfully and peacefully, and we will protect the right to do so, while making sure that politicians are allowed to go about their very important business over the next couple of weeks and months, with the full assurance and support of Police Scotland that they can do so safely.
“That is our increasing concern about the very febrile, some very aggressive, some very hostile comments that we have seen playing out on social media sites – making sure that doesn’t translate to actual physical interaction and contact with our politicians as they go about their important business.”
Commenting after the SPA board meeting, Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesman Liam McArthur said: “In recent weeks, frustrations have spilled over in the form of threats, intimidation and abuse towards elected representatives and their staff.
“That’s completely unacceptable. Everyone has the right to go to their workplace without feeling frightened.
“People across the political spectrum need to be tolerant.”
Extra policing costs in Scotland for Brexit fallout has been estimated at £17 million but, in the SPA’s papers for the board meeting, chief financial officer James Gray warned “there is insufficient funding in 2019-20 to deliver the business case in full”, with a potential knock-on effect for officer numbers in the future.
Susan Deacon, the SPA chairwoman, said: “Policing is a very obvious area where there are very real cost implications of preparing for Brexit and I don’t think anyone would question the absolute necessity for public safety to be the primary consideration through this period.”
She added: “It is for the Scottish Government to address how and where it finds additional resources, whether it be within its own coffers or through negotiations with the UK Government but I think we have an absolute responsibility to be clear about what the impact on policing is.”