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Agenda: How creeping change is altering policing and it is not for the better

Three years ago, Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill made this promise to the Scottish Parliament:

"Centralisation will not happen. We will improve local services and strengthen links with communities." We are one year into Scotland's new national police force and barely a month goes by when an SNP reassurance on their centralisation plans doesn't come unstuck.

We first saw it with the closure of police station counters to the public. Sixty stations across Scotland drew their shutters to the public despite local concerns. Then the axe fell on frontline police emergency control rooms, with six being closed across Scotland. Once again, the specific concerns of local communities, such as those in Aberdeen and the Dumfries, were ignored.

The continued rise and spread of Stephen House's stop-and-search policy across Scotland means we have rates many times higher than in England, where the policy has been challenged. In England, a Conservative Home Secretary has responded to local concerns. Such pleas in this country fall on the deaf ears of Kenny MacAskill.

In recent months I have been alarmed to watch events unravel over the use of routinely and overtly armed police officers across Scotland. Some 275 officers routinely carry sidearms whilst on normal duties. Carrying guns was supposed to be the exception. Now it is being normalised. Police officers are carrying guns at road traffic accidents, controlling crowds outside nightclubs and attending routine duties.

The criticism of this is not "almost mischevious", the phrase used by Chief Constable House to describe the many who have raised concerns about routinely armed police over the weekend. My statement that armed police officers have been stopping and searching children has not been disputed.

It is no surprise the gun policy has been fiercely contested in the Highlands. Liberal Democrat colleagues in Highland Council have led calls to Police Scotland to review their policy. With hardly a moment to consider this reasonable request, a senior officer said that changing the policy was unlikely.

This is a major test of local policing in the new national force. Kenny MacAskill and Chief Constable House repeatedly said that local communities would be in the driver's seat of local policing. But it seems clearer that local communities will only be a bystander in this new national force.

Scottish LibDems consistently warned about a democratic deficit in the national force that would allow senior management to run roughshod over the concerns of local communities.

We take no pleasure in seeing our fear realised. In 2011, Mr MacAskill said that "local services will continue to be delivered within a flexible national framework". Local communities can be forgiven for feeling conned by Mr MacAskill.

Earlier this week, Highland Council overwhelmingly voted in favour of a review of Police Scotland's gun policy. The local community could not have made their voices any clearer.

If these calls continue to be ignored, the three-year-old assurances from the Justice Secretary on police centralisation will seem worthless. Attempts to convince local communities that local policing is not purely cosmetic will be harder to make.

There are two significant issues in the Highlands armed police officers debate. One is about local policing being maintained in a sprawling, top-down and centralised police force. The other is about a broader ideological commitment to police officers routinely carrying and being seen to carry sidearms.

Both are of importance but I suspect what we will see from this latest episode in the police centralisation book is that local democracy has been ripped out of the police and that creeping change in practices is changing the nature of Scottish policing for ever and it is not for the better. Meanwhile, our Justice Secretary shrugs his shoulders and declares it is nothing to do with him.

Contextual targeting label: 
Local government

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