POLICE Scotland has overhauled its stop-and-search policy in an effort to stop officers from entering bogus information into the force's computer system.
On the eve of a high-level review of the practice following allegations of police misconduct, the force now requires officers to record the names and addresses of individuals searched. Previously, this did not happen, allowing some officers to make up stop-and-search entries and falsely inflate statistics.
MSPs welcomed the move yesterday.
Stop and search is a tactic used by police to catch criminals in possession of drugs, alcohol, stolen goods and other items.
Searches can either be statutory - which require an officer to have reasonable grounds of suspicion - or consensual, which must be based on permission of the person being searched.
More than 500,000 searches were recorded in the first nine months after the creation of Police Scotland, a figure that alarmed critics of the policy.
However, former officers told the Sunday Herald that the 500,000 figure was bogus as many of the recorded searches were simply made up.
When an officer entered the detail of a stop into the computerised system, there was no requirement to insert the name and address of the person who was searched.
The sources claimed this loophole led to officers, under pressure to keep the stop-and-search figures high, inputting "ghost" entries.
Police Scotland Chief Constable Stephen House admitted that "some" searches were being "made up", while Scottish Police Federation general secretary Calum Steele also confirmed the practice.
The Sunday Herald has now learned that Police Scotland last week changed the search registration system, so that names, addresses and dates of birth are also included.
People do not have to give these details when stopped, although a majority do.
One force insider said it was "no coincidence" that Police Scotland made the change weeks ahead of the publication of a review of the practice by the Scottish Police Authority (SPA), which oversees the single force.
Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) has also launched an investigation, with a specific focus on how searches are recorded.
This newspaper understands the SPA review has two parts: a externally commissioned study of police officers' views on the policy and a full breakdown of Police Scotland stop and search figures.
The force has refused to release detailed figures, on the grounds that publication would harm the SPA review.
Although the results of that review were supposed to be published last week, the report has been delayed until later this month.
The SPA agreed to share some of the review's "underpinning data analysis" with the Scottish Government and consult on the findings. It is understood the data was shared several weeks ago.
Graeme Pearson, Scottish Labour's justice spokesman and a former senior police officer, said: "I welcome the move to a new system which is more robust and ensures the public can have a more accurate picture of police performance.
"There is no point in hiding behind misleading figures that contradict the public's own experiences of the police. Only openness and transparency will build confidence in our communities."
Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokeswoman Alison McInnes said: "This change is long overdue. However, we still don't know the extent of the culture of 'ghost entries' or how it has skewed the already worrying number of voluntary stop and searches in Scotland. That is a practice the SPA and HMICS must get to the bottom of."
Wayne Mawson, a Police Scotland assistant chief constable, said: "As part of the continuous improvement at Police Scotland, the names and addresses and date of birth of people who have been stopped and searched and consented to give them, have been added to our stop and search database from May 1, 2014.
"Stop and search is one of a number of policing tactics we use to keep people safe. The use of stop and search, where it is targeted, intelligence-led and used in the right place at the right time … helps keep people safe."
An SPA spokesperson said: "Scottish Government officials are part of joint performance working groups which have had sight of some of the underpinning data analysis, and both Scottish Government and HMICS have had observer status at informal briefings on the emerging findings."
A spokesman for HMICS said: "HMICS will shortly be conducting an audit and assurance review on stop and search over a three-month period. This inspection will follow the SPA scrutiny of stop and search which is expected to be completed shortly.
"If necessary, we will make recommendations that ensure stop-search recording is accurate [and] subject to regular scrutiny, and that communities across Scotland can have confidence in the use of stop and search by Police Scotland."