Brian Monteith: Honesty needed to help restore faith in police

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Evening officer, can you tie a bow as well as me, sir? Nudge nudge, wink wink! How the police used to be given a hard time back in the past, accused of being too Masonic, too misogynist, too brutal, too overzealous or just too thick. Like most sweeping statements such stereotyping was ill-deserved, but there was always one plonker who did his best to make it seem true.

Over the years the police force has done a great deal to try and move with the times, to appear more contemporary, more open, more reflective of society in its make-up. There have been many initiatives – community coppers, community teams, multicultural recruitment and all sorts of political correctness that was meant to make us more accepting of our police.

It’s not an easy job and telling good, or not so good, citizens to mind how they go, move along now and generally do as you are being told is not always well received.

All of the best intentions to keep the relationships of the police can, however, come to nought very quickly by the actions of a few people and recently we have begun to see the negative effects.

Examples of police officers of any rank being let off with transgressions – sometimes criminal offences – that would have them drummed out of practically all other employment needs to stop.

The distance now being created from the local public by the centralisation of our local constabularies into one state police force has to be reversed. Assurances were given that policing would not change but it is clear to anyone who scratches the surface that the Police Scotland approach to burglary and housebreakings, managing sexual services, applying stop and search, amongst others, has completely changed in the last six months without any local discussion or consent.

The Chief Constable of Police Scotland, Sir Stephen House, is personally responsible for this state of affairs and no amount of denials that nothing has changed will convince anyone that he is driving through changes that were not asked for and never agreed to.

Sir Stephen can change it back, but just who is he accountable to? The Edinburgh city councillors? Obviously not. Edinburgh MSPs such as the member for Edinburgh East, Kenny MacAskill? Obviously not. The Justice Secretary? Oh, that’s Kenny MacAskill again. It would appear not.

I have written previously about the police response to Hillsborough and do not need to go over that ground again, suffice to say that for all the support and brave efforts of police officers on the ground the behaviour of some senior officers immediately connected with the poor management on the day and what passed for the then subsequent inquiries – including the changing of honest officers’ witness statements – is nothing short of scandalous.

This issue cannot be laid to rest until justice is seen to be done so that the innocent, alive or dead, have their names and dignity restored. This is as important to the police and wider society as it is to the relatives of Hillsborough victims.

Now, this week, we have the revelations of what is called “Plebgate”. Let us remember what happened. The Government announced it was bringing in austerity measures to tackle the economic mess left by the previous government, including cutting expenditure on the police.

The Police Federation demanded they should be protected. The Government would not back down. Then, lo and behold, a Cabinet minister is accused of swearing at police and calling them plebs because they would not let him cycle out of the Downing Street gates (as he had previously done).

Mysteriously this all ended up in the tabloids while Labour leader Ed Miliband ridiculed the minister, Andrew Mitchell, in parliament and soon he was forced to resign to take the heat off David Cameron, even though he denied ever calling anyone “plebs”.

Now we find that investigations into the conduct of the police concerned might lead to charges against some of the officers involved, that police officers with positions in the Police Federation accused Mr Mitchell of saying things in a meeting that he never said. We know this because he taped the meeting. The first draft of a report that found the officers concerned have “a case to answer” was changed to say they had done nothing wrong – without explanation.

It is now beginning to look like a conspiracy to fit up a minister to embarrass the Government. If police can do it to government ministers we all know they can do it to any of us.

In all these ways the trust and faith of the public in the local police is ruined.

Forget all the political correctness in the police – what we need is honesty. Bring that one thing back and faith in the police will be restored.

Well done, Eleanor

Congratulations to my old friend Eleanor Laing who, as Eleanor Pritchard, would blatantly deny (nudge nudge, wink wink) she was a Tory, to get elected as the first women president of Edinburgh University Students Union. Now she sits in the House of Commons as deputy speaker and Tory MP for Epping Forest. I’m sure she’ll be more forthright in her new role.