Police Scotland should deal with low-level crime over the phone rather than in person to allow officers more time to investigate other offences, according to a new report.
HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) said resolving more cases such as vandalism and theft at the “first point of contact” would alleviate demand on the frontline.
The suggestion – which has been heavily criticised by rank and file officers – came in a biennial audit of crime figures, which found more offences are taking place online.
The report said more than 11 per cent of sexual incidents now have a “cyber element”, with children being abused on commonly used apps and social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram.
The report said cyber offences were likely to “increase significantly”, impacting on reductions which have seen recorded crime figures fall to their lowest level since the mid-1970s.
And it said current recording practices failed to capture the scale of cyber-enabled sexual crime.
The HMICS report said: “We believe there is greater scope for Police Scotland to resolve cases at the first point of contact, or to resolve cases via the telephone where the complainer is content with this approach.
“This would alleviate demand on the frontline and allow officers to attend higher priority cases or to engage more with their local communities.
“This is not to say that low-level incidents would never be attended. Where, for example, the complainer is vulnerable, or where there are forensic opportunities or a suspect has been named, then the police may choose to attend. An assessment should be carried out to decide whether resolution by telephone is appropriate.”
But Calum Steele, general secretary of the Scottish Police Federation, said the move would lead to “spurious allegations” and vulnerable people “falling through the cracks”.
He said: “This will lead to people making spurious allegations of crime in order to make bogus claims on their insurance and that’s a ridiculous state of affairs – the purpose of the police is to investigate crime.
“The police have always had conflicting priorities but the second we stop dealing with the things that matter to communities, we’ve got a problem.
“The police should not be dictating to the public what their priorities are. You build community relations by visiting victims of crime, not by speaking to them over the phone.
“Regardless of the challenges of meeting cyber-crime, that cannot come by sacrificing traditional policing methods.”
There have been repeated warnings in recent months that Police Scotland does not have the resources to deal with a huge growth in cyber-crime.
Earlier this month, the Association of Scottish Police Superintendents (ASPS) said cyber-criminals had “evolved” faster than the officers investigating them.
The HMICS report said the risk of sexual harm online was placing an increased demand on the police, with the grooming of children taking place via smartphone apps.
It highlighted the case of an eight-year-old child who received several indecent images via a phone app.
Gill Imery, Assistant Inspector of Constabulary in Scotland, said: “The report is quite sensible in setting out some caveats and saying there are obviously some circumstances where resolving something over the telephone wouldn’t be appropriate.
“There will be minor things where a member of the public doesn’t necessarily want to see a police officer, but wants to record that a relatively low-value item of property has been stolen. It’s that sort of sensible use of resource we’re talking about.
“Constantly trying to attend those sort of low-level incidents compounds the challenges the police service has to meet around changing demand for its service, such as the prevalence of cyber-crime, mental health issues and substance misuse.”
Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservative’s justice spokesman, said the public would have concerns about police officers dealing with crime over the phone.
He said: “People will be extremely concerned about this, and do not want a police force that operates from behind a keyboard.
“The SNP has to realise that people are losing faith in Police Scotland, and a further deterioration of its presence from the streets may damage that faith beyond repair.”
Scottish Labour justice spokeswoman Claire Baker added: “The public must feel safe in their homes and their communities and the police’s ability to respond to threats quickly and in person can be vital to that.”
Commenting on the HMICS report, Deputy Chief Constable Rose Fitzpatrick, of Police Scotland, said: “The growth of cyber-related crime is a challenge for society as a whole.
“It will require new approaches and effective collaboration with our partners and communities to prevent and investigate types of cyber-related crime which can range from complex fraud investigations to predatory sexual offending.”