By Dr Nick McKerrell, Lecturer in Law and Civil Liberties, Glasgow Caledonian University

POLICE Scotland has real powers, more than any other Scottish institution. How it is held to account in its use of these powers matters.When the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2016 comes into force on January 25, the legislation will bring together all of Police Scotland’s powers as to arrest, search and detention in one place.

Identifying the extent of the power the police have, the law confirms that a person can be detained without criminal charge for up to 12 hours. It also clarifies when a person can be stopped and searched in the street. No other agency or individual has powers that come close to this.

For the first time it will be possible to be “read your rights” when arrested by an officer, as listed in section three of the act. This codified organised collection and guide to the extensive powers of our police service seems in contrast with the chaotic disintegration that appeared to grip policing structures in 2017.

Since September Police Scotland has had no chief constable in place. Phil Gormley, appointed in 2016, is on gardening leave as he awaits the outcome of the investigation into five complaints about his professional behaviour. Recently, three senior officers (including assistant chief Bernard Higgins) were suspended following criminal allegations.

Almost in parallel with this the national watchdog, the Scottish Police Authority (SPA), lost its chairman Andrew Flanagan half way through his tenure. He was found to have blocked a transparent approach as to the how the authority held the police to account. The crises of leadership are no coincidence. They illustrate the imbalance in Scottish policing since 2013. Scrapping the eight former forces removed the local link that had been a defining factor in how the Scottish police had operated. Rather than being elected, members of the SPA are appointed centrally. This has resulted in centralisation of the police forces and of the only organisation created to monitor the new single police body. Questions of accountability and responsibility were fudged in the rush to implement change.

Recent research from Edinburgh University has shown members of the SPA have become reliant on Police Scotland for the information they are allowed to scrutinise. Any training has generally also been provided by the national force. This means they have an almost symbiotic relationship and it has proved difficult for members of the SPA to assert any form of independence.

The SPA also seems reluctant to consult anyone else on its view of policing. This allowed controversial issues such as the increased use of armed police officers on the streets to slip through gaps in accountability. It also led to a damning report from the Auditor General on payments approved by the SPA to senior officers. These included a £67,000 relocation payment in 2012 to deputy chief constable Rose Fitzpatrick who had worked in the London Metropolitan Police Force.

The new chairwoman of the SPA, Professor Susan Deacon, has a formidable track record as a Scottish government minister and senior academic. She will need all her skills to make the organisation a functioning watchdog. As well as determining how Police Scotland will be led after the near collapse of its senior management, legitimacy for all structures of policing will need to be restored, perhaps by promoting an increased role for the Scottish Parliament or enhancing local structures of responsibility, at present erratic and inconsistent across the country. It is vital we have an appropriate level of scrutiny that ensures Police Scotland’s powers are exercised with consent and have proper oversight. This year will need to learn the lessons of last.