During its first six months of operation, Police Scotland has emphasised that all officers should ensure a focus on integrity, fairness and respect characterises their work.
Through a focus on values-based policing, officers are expected to be fair and consistent and carry out their duties in a way that upholds human rights.
However, on several occasions officers have come under fire because of the thorny issue of stop and search. In the first three months of the force's existence official figures suggested officers carried out 186,463 searches on members of the public, an average of 2,049 a day.
Public outcry has emerged, with some believing the widespread use of stop and search is unethical, breaching human rights and civil liberties. Chief Constable Sir Stephen House says his force has a mandate to carry out stop and searches on an enormous scale as violent crime and anti-social behaviour are the public's biggest policing concerns, and most people want these issues tackled at a local level.
Police Scotland emphasizes that searches should be based on reasonable suspicion but underlines the need for intelligence-led approaches that are lawful, proportionate and respectful to those members involved.
It associates the increased use of stop and search with a corresponding drop in violent crime. In Edinburgh alone, the strategy has led to a reported 69 fewer victims of serious crime and more than doubled the number of people found carrying a knife, while in Scotland the number of homicides has fallen to its lowest recorded level. Yet critics claim that the approach tends to be unevenly targeted at young males in low-income neighbourhoods.
As a criminologist, I have spent a considerable amount of time with officers in police cars to try to get a real insight into the nature and impact of police practice, particularly in Glasgow. I have found that most officers who use stop and search are not part of "jump-out" squads arriving in neighbourhoods, conducting searches then driving away. They are most often local beat cops who know the communities and have an established relationship with local residents. When they do stop and search, it tends to be after a local intelligence-gathering process.
Admittedly, I found that young men in socially deprived housing schemes were stopped most frequently. But these operations were also based on intelligence. I found that the encounters I observed were not at all adversarial. The young officers I worked with took the time to build positive relationships with the young men out on the streets.
One stop and search I observed in the south side of Glasgow was particularly memorable. The young officers had struck up a great rapport with the group of young men they were searching. When getting back into the police car, one youngster commented: "He's alright, man. He's cool!", referring to the lead officer who had joked with him. The young officers had positioned themselves in a way that would encourage such interactions while they continued to be on the lookout for potential weapons and violence.
Using stop-and-search procedures in a random way driven only by police targets is ethically wrong. But my experience of working with Police Scotland has shown there are a lot of myths about this issue.
The figures suggest there has been a big drop in violent crime in Glasgow since stop and search became a more prominent part of policing. Of course, some might argue that my presence during police patrols could influence officers' behaviour. But those I shadowed demonstrated they are focused on responding to police intelligence and able to use values-based policing effectively. As one officer put it: "Your mouth's the best thing you can take out on patrol." As part of the police reform process, new officers have to declare in front of a judge that they will discharge their duties with fairness, integrity, diligence and impartiality and accord equal respect to all people. Perhaps the public needs to trust in the police and believe these values are enacted.
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