9 February 2015

Smug Scottish Police Federation spit out the dummy on stop and search

The Scottish Police Federation have made only one prior, unedifying appearance on this blog. In a crowded field, the contribution of the bobby's informal union to the corroboration debate in Holyrood was singularly gormless. The organisation's Vice President showed little understanding of the current law on in his evidence to MSPs back in December.

Today, SPF General Secretary Calum Steele shows outright contempt for our parliamentary representatives, in an impertinent letter on the recent stooshie on Police Scotland's approach to stopping and searching innocent punters. 

I quote the eye popping correspondence in full below, littered with uncontrollable, explosive outburst of liberal fury. The General Secretary begins his pert billet doux on a modest, reconciliatory note. Anxious to allay the reasonable fears about civil liberties which have been expressed in recent days, keen to show a police service, alive to the concerns about searches which have no legal basis, and which present serious risks of exploiting the ignorance of the public to allow constables to harry and waylay folk who are innocent of any criminal offence, and any reasonable suspicion of committing one, he begins thus:

"The events of the past week have resulted in a frightening narrative that politicians believe that they are in a position and indeed have a role to play in determining how and when police officers exercise their right to stop and search someone. It is also alarming to read and hear reports that politicians consider that they are in a position to reach an agreement with or direct the Chief Constable of the day as to how and when such powers will be used."

Gadzooks! Heaven forfend that our politicians should have a care for our basic liberties and freedom from being tormented by interfering polis with no legal basis, and no suspicions, to justify stopping us and rummaging through our stuff. These duffers, these merely elected persons, suppose they have some "role to play" in upholding the basic rights of the citizens of this country to go about their business without being pestered, groundlessly, by officers of the law. A scandal.

Why shouldn't the contemporary Dicksons of Dock Green go about their beat, arbitrarily hassling the public? Why doesn't the First Minister poke her big neb out? Like Father Jack, for Mr Steele, Scottish politicians should burble, "that's an operational manner", and keep their "frightening narratives" about basic rights and police oversight to themselves. The constable e'er kens best. My knobbly, suppurating foot.

"The authority of police officers to stop and search any citizen does not arise from the dictate of politicians nor from some non-existent power of the Chief Constable but comes from the law of the land both at common law and statute. If that power is exercised inappropriately or in circumstances which breach the law, and the substantial safeguards that exist, the courts will strike down any evidence recovered unlawfully. Scotland has a well developed body of law governing the rights of the police to search and the rights of individuals who may be the subject of search." 
As the law stands at present a Police Constable can stop and search any individual without having a search warrant if they suspect they are in possession of drugs, an offensive weapon, stolen property, alcohol if attending a major football or rugby match, on public transport travelling to such an event where alcohol is not permitted, evidence in relation to an offence under the protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002, cash or cash equivalent of £1000 or more where this is the result of criminal activity and fireworks that are intended to be used anti socially. Before exercising the right to stop and search the Constable has to have reasonable grounds for suspecting that they will find one or more of these items. 
There are some exceptions which allow police officers, for example attending an incident which has involved serious violence, to stop and search without having reasonable grounds for suspecting that they might find these items. 
In matters involving terrorism the police can stop and search a vehicle if they reasonably suspect terrorist activities are involved. If such a reasonable suspicion exists for any of these matters and the common law or Parliament has given power to search, on what basis is it now to be suggested that a conversation will take place with the Chief Constable to prevent a police officer exercising these powers lawfully and in the public interest?"
The framework of law which governs search and stop and search is well understood and has developed through many decisions of the courts supplemented by extra powers granted to police officers by Parliament both at Westminster and Holyrood. None of these powers are granted to the Chief Constable (other than as an individual holding the office of Constable) and there is no place in the common law or statute for politicians deciding on the whim of the moment how, when or why police officers should exercise the powers which the law extends to them. 
All of these powers can be challenged in court as and when appropriate. The Chief Constable’s responsibility is to provide training for officers so that they understand what their powers are under the law. The role of politicians is to enact law. When the power is granted then police officers have the obligation to exercise those powers reasonably within the limits set by law, in ways consistent with the training they receive and be ready to answer for any decisions they make before a court of law rather than a court of political opinion or according to some private discussions between politicians and the Chief Constable of the day. 
The debate on ‘non-statutory’ or ‘consensual’ searches has unearthed frightening levels of political ignorance. It is well understood that for the most part we police our nation by consent not by force and for this reason our courts have consistently found that when citizens voluntarily consent to be searched that not only is such practice within the law but that occasions where a person gives consent, the interaction does not amount to a search in the more formal sense of the word. It seems to me that this is a determination based entirely on common sense. Are we really suggesting citizens should no longer be able to co-operate with police officers on a voluntary basis? 
If law developed by the courts and as laid down by Parliament is to be altered, the legislators would require to explain how a power vested in an individual Constable could be restricted through what appears to be entirely ambiguous means. It would be an absurdity for a Constable to be vested with powers only for those powers to be curtailed as a result of some private conversation between a politician and the Chief Constable. 
Regrettably the Police Service of Scotland has to carry much of the responsibility for the hostility toward the subject of stop and search. The numbers driven target approach to this area of policing was ill conceived and resulted in attention being directed towards meaningless numbers rather than the sensible objective of crime prevention and detection."

Ah yes. Those "meaningless numbers" of actual kids being collared and rumpaged through by police officers. With no suspicions that any offence has been committed. This whole passage is a smokescreen. The scandal, General Secretary, is not Police Scotland's use of its legal powers, but constables stopping folk in circumstances where no law, neither statute nor the common law, would allow officers to insist on pawing through a bag or a coat.  

Oh look, a squirrel. After knocking heads, however, Steele comes over all magnanimous. These upstart parliamentarians, he generously grants, are entitled to take a passing interest, despite the sweeping and possessive claims of his opening paragraph.

It is of course understandable and entirely correct that politicians question the use of any non-statutory search of children and all police officers should be able to account for such occurrences. The events of the past week however tend to suggest that there is no interest in hearing such accounts, as a determination has already been made that any rationale provided will be insufficient. 
It is however an absolute reality that many children in our society are out and about in our communities without the slightest knowledge of their parents or guardians. Many smoke from their pre-teen years, many more drink and yes occasionally some also carry weapons and drugs. No amount of wishing it wasn’t so changes the fact that it is so and no amount of hand wringing changes the fact that police officers have to deal with thousands of calls every year involving pre teenage youngsters. There may be no general statutory power to search at such calls but there is also no general statutory power to require a name, address or age. Perhaps the police should just do nothing and advise callers that “we have no statutory powers” and simply hope these youngsters come to, or cause no harm. 
When police officers exercise their powers to search they do so often under statute and in such circumstances they do not require consent, they can also search people they have lawfully arrested with or without a warrant. They can also ask individuals to consent to search and it’s up to the individual whether they consent or not.  What the public require to know is that police officers are only engaging in this activity in the public interest in an effort to combat crime and to keep the public safe. This is best done by training police officers how to exercise their powers and engage with the public in the interests of everyone rather than by political dictate or suggestion to Chief Constables that they have the power to overrule a well-developed system of law. 
There are undoubtedly lessons to be learnt from the recent history of stop and search within the Police Service of Scotland. These lessons however need to extend beyond the service itself and many parents and guardians need to take a greater responsibility for the actions of their children. The greatest lesson of all however must stem from the historic warnings that a single police service in Scotland could become subject to political interference. How quickly these concerns appear to have faded from the memories of those who now seek to exert what they so prophetically warned against.  

Yours sincerely       

Calum Steele, General Secretary

The behaviour and practices of the police on our streets are political. The arrogance, unembarrassed illiberalism, and pomposity of General Secretary Steele's letter to MSPs is spectacularly ill-judged, ill-toned, and misplaced. Your members are our servants, Mister Steele.

You, and the chief constable, and all of your members, are democratically accountable. Parliament, General Secretary, has a "role" and an urgent interest in keeping you honest and within the law, anxious about the rights of the public, as well as supportive and respectful of your efforts to keep the peace, and our fellow citizens from harm. That you seem to regard it as appropriate to address our elected representatives in this peremptory and high handed way is by turns disturbing and telling.

Just who the hell, General Secretary, do you think you are?


  1. AYE well said LPW. Thank you

  2. Shame he didn't also mention the unpardonable interference by politicians in preventing PC MacPlod from patrolling the streets of cesspits of crime like Inverness armed to the teeth.

  3. Well said Andrew. A lot of this goes way back, is embedded in our policing culture.

    An anecdote from 1960 - I paused to talk to some pals outside a close in the old vanished Taylor St in Townhead. We were grabbed by two cops and accused of 'loitering' and were eventually hauled up before the second most senior cop in Glasgow who - in his busy life - found time to berate our parents for our wicked behaviour (and got an earful back).

    At the time, the police were known to walk away from serious disturbances in Glasgow, or were strategically not present. I used to collect the war pension off my dad from the Saracen's Head where he worked, and even on a Wednesday afternoon, scenes of disorder were not infrequent on the Gallowgate.

    In those days of course, firms openly operated sectarian hiring polices - winked at by the STUC and the Kirk Holy Willies - municipal corruption was rife and largely unchallenged. We laugh at the freemasons now, but in those says they were a serious force in the west of Scotland - as late as the mid 70s I can remember a mason in the lighting dept who burned down his depot, sold his staff' s uniforms in the pub and turned up drunk regularly - and was promoted.

    Our civic culture has evolved but we can always improve; Mr Steele, sadly, sounds awfy like that pompous loon who had a go at me and my parents in 1960.

    Oh and pedant point - Mr Steel seems to be confusing 'dictate' with 'diktat', which is not altogether surprising I suppose.

    1. That triggers old memories of a similar kind around the mid 1950's. Being ambushed and held in a back close by two or three polis for the crime of kicking a ball around and, for those with the cojones to speak back,a good slap or three about the head.Done not so much to uphold any law but to intimidate with sarcasm and instill a fear of police authority at a young age.

      Didn't seem to work,in fact had the reverse effect,as the cry of ERRAFUNNYPOLIS was heard loud and clear anytime they appeared.

      Please consult your "parliamo glesca" for translation.

  4. "Stop and search" seems overly gentle as a term for waylaying people and confiscating their drugs and alcohol. I call it theft.

  5. Mmm.

    Your man's letter to MSP's does seem quite high handed. I suppose it would help his case if the police had the confidence of the public it exists to serve.

    Unfortunately it doesn't.

    So on balance, in terms of stop & search, they can get rooted.

  6. Sirrah - ensure your horseless carriage lights are fully operational and your horseless carriage wheel treads are of the required depth for the foreseeable future.

  7. Sirrah - ensure your horseless carriage lights are fully operational and your horseless carriage wheel treads are of the required depth for the foreseeable future.