A Layman Looks at Scotland's Police

Article excerpt

There cannot be many of us in Scotland who, when we recollect emotions in tranquillity, admit to knowing the inside of police cells from Stranraer to Shetland. I managed that grand tour as the first lay Inspector of Constabulary for Scotland in modern times, and, as far as I can judge from the tinting of parallel English initiatives, as the first in Britain. I say `in modern times' because in the age when ax-colonels could be chief constables, retired generals might be Her Majesty's Inspectors of Constabulary, reputedly giving special attention to boots, buttons, and tidiness of police houses.

The Citizen's Charter launched by the Major government has broader horizons. The police cells were only incidental to the remit. It sought, as far as police and comparable services were concerned, to add a `lay' element to professional and expert systems of inspection. Her Majesty's Inspectors (with separate structures for England and Wales and for Scotland) are normally former chief constables, with a staff of seconded officers. Their inspections are the basis on which Britain's police forces (more than forty in England and Wales and eight in Scotland) are certified as efficient or, in one troublesome English case, pointedly denied this endorsement.

The Charter claims that in public inspection processes the appointment of lay members will ensure that `professional views will be balanced by the sound common sense of other members of the public', though it also refers to `lay experts'. There are inherent but surmountable problems in these Charter concepts, quite apart from manageable ambiguities which creep in-when lay inspection is also seen as a means to give public bodies expertise and insights from the wider world, and especially the private sector.

The `lay inspection' concept is probably most effective when the different perspective brought to bear is primarily one of consumer interest. That may bring problems if the concept is applied, say, to the Inland Revenue, already too efficient for some of us. But there is a consensus about the need for good policing as well as the need -- for social reasons and as an element in efficiency -- for good relations with the public. Every police officer ought to be by definition a public relations officer. That is not to say that policing may not benefit from the special expertise of a lay element in H.M. Inspectorate of Constabulary, whether by full-time appointments (as in England) or part-time ones, as in the smaller Scottish establishment. I spent some happy hours looking at the very different ways large and small forces handled their media relations.

Yet the heart of the matter must be the lay inspector's attempt to combine a sense of public interest and consumer priorities with an understanding of the legal and professional framework within which any public service works -- and in the case of the police of the distinctive ethos and camaraderie of the service.

I agreed with the grumble of one Scottish chief constable about the way we discussed police officers and the `civilian employees' who have a vital part in police work and are often the public's first point of contact by telephone or at a station counter. `We're all civilians', he said, and rightly. But in practice even a civil police service has a strong and distinctive sense of identity that goes far beyond a mere `canteen culture'. Uniforms, training, hierarchy. anti social hours and round-the-clock working, shared experiences and hazards, dependence on colleagues to minimise these hazards, the distinctive but clearly limited powers of constables: all these contribute to that sense of identity, and inevitably so.

This police ethos (which goes with diversity of skills and tasks) creates two problems for the lay inspector who is supposed to find ways to reflect the public interest. First, he has to do more than merely show an interest. Very quickly, he has to learn enough of the ways of this very special world to understand its problems, though he cannot pretend to solve them. …