THE number of allegations against police officers by members of the public is up again.
It is always difficult to interpret such figures. Is it because Scotland's police officers are guilty of more incompetence, incivility, corruption and neglect of duty or does it simply reflect increasing public confidence in the system for investigating them?
The fact that the number of cases being referred on to the area procurator fiscal is down suggests it may be the latter. After all, the office of Police Complaints Commissioner for Scotland was established only in 2007 and such institutions take some time to bed in. Also the number of complaints, compared with the number of contacts between police officers and members of the public is still relatively small.
The pattern of complaints may be a sign that people are no longer prepared to endure bad service or rudeness. As with Scottish restaurants, where the standards of both food and service have improved dramatically since disgruntled customers found their tongues, rising numbers of complaints against the police should be welcomed, provided justified complaints form the basis of a learning experience. Though less powerful than the Independent Police Complaints Commission in England and Wales, Scotland's commissioner, Professor John McNeill, brings an element of independence to the procedure. Previously, a common complaint was that the police investigated themselves and were naturally defensive. Prof McNeill has tried to instil a culture of learning from mistakes rather than one of blame.
This will be more important than ever when the new single tier police authority is launched in Scotland next April, depriving the service of the option of asking one force to investigate another. Prof McNeill has been asked to continue his role until 2014. Under these circumstances, it is vital that his office is sufficiently well-resourced to be able to hold officers to account on behalf of the public.
Seen by some as a toothless tiger, the commissioner would benefit from having the power to initiate investigations rather than merely responding to complaints. Why? Because the power of the police to fulfil their functions and duties is dependent on public consent.
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