Susan Dalgety: The thin blue line is beginning to unravel

Police officer numbers may be stable but the backroom staff they need are being cut. Picture: John Devlin
Police officer numbers may be stable but the backroom staff they need are being cut. Picture: John Devlin
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There is more to police work than drinking pints in the Oxford Bar with John Rebus or cups of rooibos tea in the sunshine with the irresistible Mma Ramotswe, Botswana’s number one lady detective.

It is a hard slog, involving ­uniformed officers, CID in plain clothes, and crucially a team of backroom staff like fingerprint experts and data technicians.

Last week I sat on a broken chair in a dingy room, with ten other people, while a Detective Inspector drew out a statement form on a piece of crumbled paper.

He had no computer. Not even a notebook. There was a faded Wanted poster on the wall with the grim faces of suspects in the Rwandan genocide, and nothing else.

I was in Lilongwe, capital of Malawi, and I was in the police station to report a theft of cash from my hotel room.

Detective Inspector Chimpeni did his best. He was polite, explained the process in painstaking detail, and when he and his two colleagues came to my room the next morning to “check it”, they were very professional. Up to a point.

A simple fingerprint exercise would have solved the case in 24 hours. As it is, the only way the culprit will be found out is if he or she confesses. And that is not going to happen.

Malawi has a population of upwards of 18 million people. Its police force is tiny, with an even smaller annual budget. According to a recent UN report its CID officers are poorly trained, and “lack scientific support for investigations”.

What have the problems facing the police force in one of the world’s poorest countries got to do with Scotland, I hear you ask?

After all, our national police force is well staffed. There were 17,256 officers in post at the end of 2017 according to the Scottish Government website, and SNP ministers have promised to protect that number to fulfil their 2007 manifesto promise of 1,000 more police officers.

What SNP ministers are more coy about is the loss of backroom jobs. They are very reluctant to talk about the number of vital support staff, such as 999 call handlers, incident advisors and forensic technicians who have been made redundant in recent years.

More than 2,000 support jobs were axed from 2009 to 2013, when Police Scotland was set up.

With the national force having to cut its budget by £1.1 billion by 2026, Unison Scotland, the trade union that represents police support staff, fears even more will get their P45.

Solving crime is far more complex than Midsomer Murders suggests. It takes a balanced team of uniformed officers, detectives, technicians and clerical staff to solve even the most straightforward of crimes.

With criminals increasingly going online, the need for technical experts must surely increase. There is not much a constable in a patrol car can do about identity theft, even if she has the latest smartphone.

Police Scotland has lurched from one crisis to the next since it was set up five years ago. It has lost not one, but two chief constables, and high profile scandals, like the tragic deaths of John Yuill and Lamara Bell three years ago in the notorious M9 crash, has left its reputation in tatters.

With a record like this, the civilian in overall charge, Justice Secretary Michael Matheson, needs something to boast about – hence his government’s insistence that they are protecting police officer numbers.

But look behind the political spin and you will find community police officers increasingly stretched as they are forced to spend less time on the streets and more time back at base doing essential police work once done by civilian staff.

Scotland’s hard-pressed detectives will never have to resort to making their own stationery, as Inspector Chimpeni had to, and our police will continue to solve thousands of crimes each year, from horrific murders to break-ins.

But by forcing Police Scotland to cut vital support staff so that the Justice Secretary can pretend he is protecting police numbers, the government is gambling with our community and personal safety.

As any police officer will tell you, crime can’t crack itself. It takes a fingerprint expert as well as a detective inspector to make our streets safe.