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Role of an ethics panel in policing

The creation of Scotland's single police force was a controversial decision from the start, which meant the first months of its operation were always likely to raise questions about how it operates and how and when it is held to account.

And so it has proved. On issues such as saunas, stop and search and, most recently, the increased visibility of armed officers, the force has been accused of imposing a one-size-fits-all approach without public debate or political discussion. It has also been suggested the system of scrutiny is not sufficiently robust. The problem, say critics, is that the relationship between the police, politicians and the public is not working as well as it should.

Perhaps as a response to this criticism, Police Scotland is looking into a new idea: an ethical advisory panel that would work with senior police officers to discuss the most important issues facing the force, how to resolve them and perhaps also help to communicate them in a better way to the public.

The make-up of the panel, and how it would operate, is still being discussed, but there is a strong case for its creation in the light of recent criticism of Police Scotland over when officers are armed. Central to that criticism was the suggestion that the decision on armed officers was made without sufficient discussion. In future, an ethics panel could contribute to that discussion as well as promote a more thoughtful approach to other important issues. For example, when should tasers be used? When should someone be arrested for prostitution? When should someone be let off if they are found with drugs? And, of course, when should officers be armed on the streets?

To make the panel as robust as possible in looking at these questions and others, it should include a wide range of lay people and professionals who can question and challenge traditional ways of thinking in the police. The appointments would also have to be independent of Sir Stephen House, the chief constable, and it is worth considering whether the panel should have the power to instigate its own investigations and discussions, as well as call the chief constable and others to meetings, and make some or all of its deliberations public.

What all of this could do is help Police Scotland communicate its policies more efficiently to the public (and it certainly needs to do that)although at no point should it be seen as an alternative to proper scrutiny and accountability of the force. The turf war between the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) and the chief constable left the impression that the structure of scrutiny required toughening, although yesterday's announcement that the SPA and HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland are looking into the recent firearms issue would suggest the system is doing its job fairly well.

The ethics panel should only ever be an addition to this system, but it would be a welcome one if it helped Police Scotland, and the wider public, consider what kind of force Scotland wants. We are still in the early stages of a profound change to policing in Scotland; an ethics panel could help us get it right.

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