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Police officers suspended in crackdown on illegal snooping

DOZENS of Scottish police officers are under criminal investigation in a clampdown on data breaches involving the force computer system.

Police are under investigation.
Police are under investigation.

A total of 43 officers have been put on to restricted duties and another officer has been suspended, solely because of ­allegations of illegally accessing confidential information.

Six individuals being investigated for the alleged data breaches have been off frontline duties for nearly two years.

Meanwhle, in a separate ­investigation, two officers have been suspended accused of rape and data protection offences. Another has been suspended following allegations of stalking and data protection offences.

Amid growing concern that gangs are trying to infiltrate law enforcement to access information, Police Scotland and the Crown Office are taking a tough stance on alleged breaches.

The latest figures reported to the force's ruling board, the Scottish Police Authority (SPA), show 41 officers and two civilian colleagues were on restricted duties purely because of alleged data crime. They account for nearly half of the 97 Scottish officers and staff taken off frontline duties because they were under criminal investigation.

A further nine officers are on restricted duties, accused of data offences as well as more serious crimes. In one case, a constable has been under investigation for more than a year over an alleged breach of the Data Protection Act and an accusation of being a "criminal associate".

Chief Superintendent Eleanor ­Mitchell, of the Professional Standards Department, said: "Police Scotland treats any alleged breach of data protection seriously. All appropriate steps are taken against anyone committing breaches. Ensuring the integrity of the information held by Police Scotland is a priority and we regularly carry out audits which allow us to make sure policies are being adhered to.

"Training is provided to all officers and staff around data protection and the compliant use of systems."

Ms Mitchell stressed all such alleged offenders were referred to the ­procurator-fiscal but that they represented just a fraction of an overall police workforce of more than 24,000 officers and staff.

However, sanctions against those found guilty of the offence can be severe. Three years ago former constable Karen Howie was jailed for 27 months for passing on information to a suspect in a counterfeiting investigation.

In 2011 the then Strathclyde force revealed 27 crime gangs were trying to infiltrate its structures, primarily to access confidential information.

However, police insiders stress that alleged snooping is only rarely to help criminals. It is claimed officers at times are curious and seek data about celebrities, potential partners or neighbours.

On other occasions they are caught sourcing information that was of ­legitimate interest, but not part of a proper investigation.

Brian Docherty, chairman of the Scottish Police Federation, said: "Of course if it right and proper that police use of data is subject to scrutiny, but it would be unfair to say these figures are indicative of a problem within the police service.

"Police officers will always need to access data. There is a lot of confusion over whether police officers accessing data in some circumstances is ­appropriate. This is the wrong test. What we should be concerned about are instances where the data is misused and there is little evidence this is the case."

Figures before the SPA's Complaints and Conduct Committee revealed 11 officers were currently suspended - 10 constables and an inspector - only one of them for data protection allegations unrelated to other alleged criminality.

A constable has also been suspended while under investigation for allegedly breaching the controversial 2012 ­Offensive Behaviour at Football Act. Another is facing allegations of assault, abduction and fire-raising with a racial and homophobic aggravation. Yet another is accused of sending indecent text messages.

The overall figures represent a small proportion of the 17,000-strong Police Scotland force.

An SPA spokeswoman said: "The committee will seek to ensure that appropriate action is being taken."

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