By Kath Murray

IN a recent interview with Holyrood Magazine, the former Cabinet Secretary for Justice Kenny MacAskill recommended that the SNP should now scrap its long-standing commitment to maintaining 1,000 more police officers than the party inherited in 2007. Describing the target as “arbitrary”, Mr MacAskill stated that “17,234 was a figure that was appropriate”, adding “it has to now go back to being a decision for the SPA and Police Scotland to make in discussion with political representatives.”

Whilst the explanation for this change of heart seems hazy, Mr MacAskill’s recommendation is likely to be welcome among policing stakeholders. A number of organisations, including the Association for Police Superintendents in Scotland (ASPS), the Scottish Police Federation, Unison, the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) and senior officers have cast doubt on the target. In general, critics have argued that there is a tension between the political demand to maintain officer numbers, and the wider cuts imposed upon the force. The fact that staffing accounts for 85 per cent of the police budget exacerbates this tension further. As Niven Rennie, the President of ASPS has pointed out: “17,234 comes with a price tag. You cannot retain numbers and strip out everything else – it just doesn't make sense.”

The principal difficulty is that the 17,234 target is an exceptionally blunt policy instrument, with no detail or strategy attached. For instance, there’s no mention of community policing and frontline numbers, which media reports estimate to be closer to 10,000, or the respective number of officers on non-frontline duties.

In England and Wales, the picture is clearer, if gloomier. Overall, police officer numbers have fallen by around 11 per cent since 2010, with some forces losing up to 20 per cent of officers. In an attempt to mitigate the impact of austerity, forces have increased the proportion of officers on the frontline, to around 85 per cent. Nevertheless, the cuts are brutal and the net result is that frontline numbers have fallen. These sharp cuts to officer numbers in England and Wales have prompted politicians in Scotland to paint the commitment to 17,234 officers in favourable terms. But the fact of the matter is that we don’t have the relevant numbers to make a valid comparison. In the absence of accessible detailed figures, the actual size of the frontline in Scotland remains a mystery.

Still, if the frontline really does consists of around 10,000 officers, then somewhere along the line, there is a serious shortfall – one that can’t be explained by falling numbers of civilian staff.

As Unison has pointed out, by dint of the political protection afforded to officers, civilian staff have taken the brunt of the cuts to date, which has led to some degree of backfilling by officers. Unpublished Police Scotland statistics show a seven per cent fall in civilian staff numbers between 2014 and 2015, which accounts for around 444 FTE (Full Time Equivalent) staff. Yet this figure barely touches the apparent gap between frontline and non-frontline officers. As a rough and ready estimate, it looks as though only around 65 per cent of officers are on the frontline in Scotland, working directly in communities, with the remaining 35 per cent on non-frontline operational duties. If this is the case, it means that the number of frontline officers per head of population in Scotland is about the same as that in England and Wales, if not slightly lower.

Against this contested and muddied backdrop, Mr MacAskill’s comments appear to signal a welcome change of political direction. It is however, only the start. As the Scottish Police Federation have pointed out, scrapping the 17,234 target in itself is unlikely to solve the challenges facing Police Scotland. What it should do is provide some badly needed flexibility, and begin to shift the political spotlight away from capacity, or the size and cost of policing. Thereafter, detailed strategic analysis and long-term planning is required to assess the demands placed on policing, to ascertain the skills and types of responses needed, and determine the most constructive allocation of officers and staff. This is a substantively different conversation to police force strength. It is about local problems and priorities, police capability, and working out how best to sustain neighbourhood and preventative police-work against a backdrop of cuts to policing and related services.

Put another way, scrapping the arbitrary police officer target is only the first step. It is what follows on that really counts.

Kath Murray is the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research Fellow in the School of Law at the University of Edinburgh.