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Policing policies and open debate

Certain questions keep arising about the public and political oversight of Police Scotland's operational policies.

Such questions arise again over the targeting of children and young people for stop-and-searches. This matter has been taken up the charity Children 1st and Tam Baillie, the Children's Commissioner for Scotland.

In some areas, young people make up a very high proportion of those subjected to the policy. In Glasgow, the number of children aged 10 to 15 is approximately the same as the number of stop-searches of young people of that age. However, the vast majority of young people are not being stopped and searched. The only reasonable conclusion is that the police are stopping and searching the same youths repeatedly.

There is a very real risk of alienating young people by singling them out in this way, especially against a backdrop of falling levels of youth crime and a decline in social problems such as weapon-carrying.

Police Scotland chief constable Sir Stephen House may argue this is proactive, based on evidence, and that intelligence-led policing operations are having an impact on crime figures. The problem is that, as he knows, such declines in violent crime and anti-social behaviour are evident across the Western world. This appears to be as much a cultural shift as a success of enforcement.

The most likely reason for young people to be stopped and searched is because they are known or believed to be carrying alcohol. The police argue that these searches are intelligence-led. In general, this can be a technical term for their having been tipped off by the public or knowing the places and times young people drink illicitly.

It may be that there is public support for such operations as stop-and-search and the public would agree that knife crime and drinking-related anti-social behaviour need to be tackled. People might feel that an "adversarial" police contact criticised by Mr Baillie is an acceptable price and that law-abiding young people have nothing to fear. Many young people themselves may support it.

The problem is, we do not know and Sir Stephen appears to have led the increase in stop-and-searches without reference to outside views. The same applies to the increasing controversy about the carrying of weapons by armed officers on routine duties.

We have policing by consent, and yet in these issues there is considerable disquiet about whether that consent has been truly sought and given.

The role of politicians is key. Has Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill any influence over the policies of Police Scotland and, if not, why not? The real question raised is about where the line is drawn between the operational autonomy of the police and the wishes of the public as represented through political decision-making processes.

It has been a long time since there has been a public debate about where that line should be drawn. It is time to have one. Police Scotland's view appears to be that these are not matters for public debate. Many would disagree.

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