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Police Scotland Chief Constable Jo Farrell: Row over long ride home in a police car...

missed the real scandal

The fact that there were only two traffic cars on duty for the whole of Lothian and Borders shows just how stretched Police Scotland’s resources are.

This is the topic of my latest Scotsman column, published today 12th December 2023.

Honeymoons don’t last long as a rule but it’s been the briefest of interludes for our new Chief Constable. No sooner had Jo Farrell arrived to take on our top policing job than she was in hot water for taking a long ride home in a police car.

I must admit the hand-wringing and headlines made me smile. Not so long ago, some Chief Constables of much smaller forces were chauffeured 24/7. Thinking back, I don’t think the first Chief I knew had a car of his own. I distinctly remember my first Chief Superintendent took a divisional car home with him at night. I recall he even had a tow bar fitted to pull his caravan. Ah, the good old days!

But seriously, getting back to Chief Constable Farrell’s ride home, let’s get down from our high horses for a moment and consider. Stuck at Waverley Station by train cancellations and with a business guest of Police Scotland in tow, requesting a ride home probably seemed like a reasonable idea at the time.

A few years ago, it would have been an unremarkable event, but not today, with social media eyes ever alert for the slightest misdemeanour. Much has been made of the fact that the crew that gave her the lift was one of only two traffic units on duty in the Lothian and Borders area that night. Whether the Chief knew this is unknown but for me this is the real story – that police resources are now so reduced that only two traffic crews were on duty for that vast area perfectly illustrates the challenge that the new Chief is taking on.

Was it ill-judged? In this day and age, yes, and I’ve no doubt she will have learned a valuable lesson. Even so, I'm reluctant to jump on the bandwagon. Having had a long police service and still with a good memory, I am not in a position to throw stones. Besides, in our fixation with fault-finding, I think we sometimes miss the main point. Our new Chief Constable may deserve criticism in the future, but if so let’s make it about something important, for she has taken on one of policing’s toughest challenges.

She will know that leading Police Scotland can be a poisoned chalice. Jo Farrell is our fourth Chief in ten years, and only one of her predecessors has succeeded in the post. Only Sir Iain Livingstone left by the front door having completed his tenure. He stabilised the force and took it forward, but was never misty-eyed about future challenges. He made it clear that present funding made delivering a viable policing plan all but impossible.

Leading a large police service is a tough task in the good times, right now it’s diabolically difficult. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been stripped out of Police Scotland’s budget over the last ten years and it’s taken its toll. Street policing is down to bare bones and it’s about to get worse as more cuts seem inevitable.

Jo Farrell is leading our police service in the most difficult of circumstances. It is right that she be challenged when appropriate but also supported in her new role. We should wish her success, for all our sakes.

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