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Potential police recruits should not be barred over minor convictions in their youth

This is my latest Scotsman column, published on 15th August 2022.

Who among us would wish to be judged on our early years?

That gauche teenage time when hormones rage. When we reject, on principle, our parents’ views and values. When we have the strongest opinions, without a smidgin of knowledge to base them on. A time when we first fall desperately in love, and when heartbreaks are felt so deeply. A time when some are drawn to bad company and veer off the beaten track to fall foul of the justice system.

There but for fortune go many of us.

Criminal records tell the story. Juvenile offenders, mainly boys, usually come onto the radar at about the age of 14. Offences are often minor, breach of the peace, petty theft, road traffic offences, or possession of class B drugs.

Thankfully, by their early 20s, most have matured, and disappear from criminal records never to return. Only a small minority persist to become habitual criminals. This pattern has long been recognised, and underlies the principles of our juvenile justice system in which we try not to criminalise young people.

We direct them to children’s panels instead of courts. We place them in secure detention as a last resort. Records of minor crimes are expunged after a period of time.

All these measures recognise that most youth offending is a passing phase and should not blight the life of a young person.

Fast-forward to a recent ‘shock’ headline when Chief Constable Sir Iain Livingstone was reported as saying that Police Scotland “should recruit ex-criminals”. As is often the case, the headline was a little exaggerated.

What he actually said was that some minor convictions should not automatically disbar someone from joining the police, and in that he was simply talking fairness and sense.

A candidate for the police or other public service should be judged on the content of their character and their potential, not their juvenile past.

Of course, there must be exceptions, offences involving dishonesty or violence must be carefully examined to make sure that such behaviour is in the past.

Just as important as the recruiting process is the continual review during the two-year probationary period for constables, when an experienced eye can spot behaviours that suggest a recruit may not become “a good and efficient officer”.

You may be able to put on a front during the recruitment process, but it’s impossible to keep up a facade over two years on the frontline. Your true character is inevitably exposed. The role of tutors and sergeants is pivotal and always has been to the health of any police service.

The independent inquiry into Wayne Couzens, the Metropolitan Police officer who murdered Sarah Everard, has yet to report but is likely to draw attention to the process that recruited him and failures to act on strong warning signs about his behaviour during his probationary period.

In this time when recruiting is difficult, the police and other public services must be watchful but also think anew.

Candidates deserve to be judged on their merits and their potential, not their youthful mistakes. I cringe when I think of myself during my teenage years. I certainly would not wish to be judged on that immature period of my life. I suspect not many would!

You can also read my full article here.

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