Mike Crockart: Police merger isn’t working

Picture (posed by model): Bill Henry
Picture (posed by model): Bill Henry
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All politics is local. At least, that’s how the famous quote by American politician Tip O’Neill goes.

Of course, what he meant by that was regardless of what aims, goals and priorities national politicians may have, people will often vote according to how they feel about local issues, the issues they face in their everyday lives.

Often, the most traumatic event any of us will face is when we become a victim of crime. Suffering from a housebreaking where an unknown person has entered your own home, the place where you should feel safest, can be one of the hardest traumas to deal with. Having been a police officer, I have seen first-hand the awful damage done to people who
suffer a crime in their own home.

It was all the more disappointing, therefore, to read of the appalling drop in solvency rates for housebreakings in Edinburgh.

A drop from 40 per cent to 17 per cent, year on year, shows that something has gone dramatically wrong. It also means that many more victims are left worried about their safety without the comfort of knowing that their housebreaker has been caught and punished.

The major change which has happened over the last year has, of course, been the SNP Government’s flagship policy of the merger of regional forces into a single Police Scotland under the ex-Strathclyde chief, Stephen House.

Locally, this has meant specialist teams being broken up and more crimes being investigated by uniformed officers. Beat officers do many things very well, but they are hard-pressed generalists, often extremely short of time, working odd shifts; a combination which makes detailed investigation of this sort very difficult.

I should know, I performed a uniformed role for six years. I also examined scenes of crime, mainly housebreakings, for two years in a specialist role during which I built up knowledge of prolific housebreakers; their preferred areas to work, methods they use and whether they have usual partners in crime.

It’s this knowledge which brought such success and, sadly, it’s this knowledge which is now lost.

Many people warned that the move to a centralised command of policing would mean a loss of local priorities but I wasn’t entirely convinced. My time in Lothian and Borders showed me that some of the previous forces were simply too small to deal with all that modern policing could ask of them, so a move to a larger force might give a better response to major investigations, easier access to specialist teams and, of course, potential savings on procurement.

Indeed, there was even the possibility that having 32 functional divisions mapped onto Scotland’s local authorities would give the chance for closer working, more effective setting of local priorities in association with locally-elected politicians. Unfortunately, the reality is falling well short of this ideal. The last few weeks in Edinburgh have seen the disbanding of specialist housebreaking investigation units, a change in policy around the attitude to prostitution and saunas and a programme of “national priorities” imposed, all without the involvement, scrutiny or approval of local councillors. Where does that leave the victims of these crimes? Where can their voices now be heard?

In England, they’ve moved to direct elections for police and crime commissioners to deal with this democratic deficit; to represent the everyday concerns; to be the voice of the victims of crime and to identify local policing priorities and push senior police officers to deal with them. It may not be universally supported and the jury is still out on how effective they’ll be, but it’s still far in advance of the situation we now have in Scotland.

Edinburgh residents deserve a police service responsive to their particular needs.

Knowing that knife crime is a “national priority” gives no comfort when you worry that the person who broke into your house is now far more likely to be back next week.

Tip O’Neill might as well have said “All policing is local”, as every one of us will judge how effective Police Scotland is, based on how secure we feel in our own homes. On the evidence of the last week, they have a mountain to climb.

• Mike Crockart is Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West