POLICE officers have accused Scotland's new single force of making them carry out "unethical" and "illegal" searches to meet targets.

Frontline officers have contacted The Herald to complain about new practices within divisions and among officers who feel compelled to "massage the figures".

In some instances, officers have been forced to search innocent people as they leave pharmacies and off-licences to meet targets, according to those who have aired concerns.

Correspondence seen by The Herald also reveals senior officers have complained about an "unethical culture" of stop-searches driven by the excessive pressure of targets.

Police use stop-searches to deter violent crime and catch offenders carrying weapons, drugs or alcohol underage.

However, officers say the pressure on divisions to meet specific targets and record "positive" stop-searches has led to some selecting people with alcohol outside off-licences and known methadone users leaving pharmacies.

In the first six months of Police Scotland, officers conducted a record 310,784 stop-searches and recorded a 20% increase in motoring offences.

Officers say some divisions now have league tables with those who conduct most stop-searches and catch most speeders named at the top.

They claim such tables are used as "leverage" against those wanting promotion or career progression. As a result, some frontline officers are conducting stop-searches without due cause and falsely recording "positives".

The officers who have contacted the paper wish to remain anonymous because they fear they would lose their jobs if named. More than a dozen have come forward so far.

One frontline officer said: "Many of the searches now conducted are not ethical and some are not legal. Stop-searches should be intelligence-led and should only be conducted where there is reasonable suspicion the person is acting unlawfully.

"But officers pull over cars to check for driving offences and also mark that down as a stop-search. They have also started stopping prescription carriers exiting pharmacies and customers exiting off-sales to increase the proportion of positive stop-searches in their division."

It was revealed on Monday that police are exceeding their targets for catching speeding motorists but falling short in addressing rape targets. Other targets leaked to the paper include ensuring that "15% or more of the total stop-searches conducted are positive".

One officer said: "I have frequently found myself in the position where I have had to issue tickets for the most minor of offences to meet my monthly target, much to the disgust of the person on the receiving end. In the past many of these cases warranted only a warning and the person involved -hardly a criminal - left with a good feeling about the police.

"In my experience, well over two decades, I can say that the morale of individual officers is at an all-time low."

Others referred to the use of unmarked cars to help them catch rather than deter speeders, and being told daily "nil returns" are unaccept-able with regard to stop-searches.

Police Scotland has consistently denied setting targets for officers but police say in practice the targets set for divisions cascade down to them.

"They say we are not set targets but that is exactly what my annual appraisal was - objectives to target X number of speeders and X number of stop-searches," said one officer.

Another officer said: "Frontline officers are often forced to chase minor key performance indicator offences at the expense of doing 'real police work'.

"Officers are forced to meet unreasonable targets, with no leeway for failure. This has resulted in false-figure submissions by officers. Undetected crimes are also recorded as lesser crimes and thereafter amended back to more serious crimes once they are detected."

Brian Docherty, chairman of the Scottish Police Federation, has raised concerns about targets and reports of unethical behaviour with Chief Constable Sir Stephen House. "We need to use intelligence to target criminals causing specific problems," said Mr Docherty. "There is no point targeting everyone indiscriminately and without discretion.

"If we continue to target people indiscriminately that will undermine the goodwill of the law-abiding public that we rely on to police the country. That is why we have raised concerns with the chief constable and why we will continue to do so.

"He has assured us that where bad practice is reported, action will be taken immediately. But ultimately we need to be outcomes-led rather than targets-led. Let's put the common sense back into what we're doing. We need the public onside."

Deputy Chief Constable Rose Fitzpatrick said: "Any suggestion that figures are in some way being recorded unethically would be subject to the appropriate action to ensure such practice did not take place. Such practice would not be acceptable.

"Police Scotland works within the context of an ethical and legal performance framework which is robustly monitored at both command and local level as well as through regular reports to the Scottish Police Authority and local scrutiny arrangements.

"Officers are not set individual targets. However, it is entirely appropriate that Police Scotland works towards performance targets on key priorities which the public tell us are the most important for them."