Mev Brown: Time to release our officers from their paperwork prison

Lothian and Borders Police on the beat in Edinburgh

Lothian and Borders Police on the beat in Edinburgh

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These are testing times for the police. As Lothian & Borders officers settle back into normal duties after helping handle the riots in England, police resources and tactics across the UK are in the spotlight as never before.

And the proposed creation of a single Scottish police force means our own Chief Constable, David Strang, is having to contemplate the biggest overhaul of policing in the region for a generation.

Amid all this, there is one thing that reassures the public – bobbies on the beat.

But, despite all the talk of reform, nobody is discussing perhaps the single biggest step anyone could take to free up more officers’ time – slashing red tape.

To put the problem in context, I will recount just one incident from the many nights that I have spent on patrol with the police.

The two officers I was with encountered a drunken brawl in the street between two groups of revellers, numbering a minimum of 12.

Firstly, I was surprised they broke up a brawl that size without back-up, but then I was amazed to watch them send both groups on their ways with no more than a verbal warning.

Puzzled, I asked why no arrests had been made. Their reply speaks volumes about the day-to-day problems faced by the boys in blue. Doing that, they said, would take them off the streets for several hours processing the paperwork for admission to the cells and writing the incident reports.

And, if their colleagues were involved in an even more serious incident and called for back-up, what good would they be sitting in the custody suite doing paperwork?

You can’t fault their logic, or fail to share their frustration.

Of the conversations I have had with police officers, one of the more common was regarding frustration with the amount of, often repetitive and sometimes pointless, paperwork.

As you may expect, when asking officers why they joined the police, the answer is invariably something along the lines of “protecting the public and putting criminals behind bars”.

Not once was I told: “Because I like filling in forms.”

Ironically, given the mountains of paperwork officers are forced to fill out, if there is one thing that is difficult to discover, it is just how much time police officers spend on patrol, as opposed to filling out forms.

HM Inspector of Constabulary in Scotland doesn’t gather that information. Even a 35-page report entitled “Demanding Times: the front line and policing visibility” and published earlier this year by HM Inspector of Constabulary, which covers England, Wales and Northern Ireland, fails to shed much light. Instead, it ducks the issue, by classing officers doing paperwork as technically “available”, though not actually “visible”.

Perhaps if we want a clearer indication of how much of our police officers’ time is consumed by red tape and paperwork, we could look at how many offenders are jailed each year per individual officer.

The answer is less than one per year.

Scotland’s 17,000-plus police sent 15,828 offenders into prison in 2009/10. That represents a fall from the 19,926 jailed by the 16,000 police employed in 2001/2.

Sentencing policy may have a part to play, but all my anecdotal evidence suggests that red tape is an enormous factor.

The proposed merger of the eight Scottish constabularies will have huge implications. At a stroke, the UK’s second biggest force would be created.

With around 25 per cent of police budgets currently being taken up by headquarters costs, the potential savings are significant.

A single force could easily be funded directly from Holyrood, rather than through the 32 local authorities as the individual forces currently are. This would give Holyrood ministers considerable clout and, conversely, diminish the influence of local councils.

As they say, the devil will be in the detail.

But, at the end of the day, somebody needs to start cutting police red tape and paperwork.

The term “cop” comes from the phrase “constable on patrol” and that is what the public, and officers, want.