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We're all victims when politicians waste police time

With a decade of budget cuts and officers forced to deal with issues like mental health problems, new demands imposed on Police Scotland are a real threat to our traditional system of community policing.

This is the topic of my latest column, published in today's Scotsman (28th May 2024)....

The good news is that hate crime allegations have already settled down. The initial avalanche of spite and politically motivated bile was rightly disregarded and our small but active population of malign actors is moving on. The initial interest in the new law was to be expected, as was the quick tail-off, but the legislation was unnecessary in the first place.

It’s the unfortunate tendency of new legislative bodies to want to make their mark with new laws. While during the Scottish Parliament’s early years, MSPs managed to control this urge, in the last decade the temptation to legislate has been hard to resist.

The consequence has been a growing list of unworkable and unnecessary laws, like the smacking ban. As fringe political parties have somehow managed to lever influence, the zeal to legislate and control has produced even more bizarre laws, including the blocked gender recognition reform bill and now the Hate Crime Act.

How I wish that, when new legislation comes to mind, our politicians would first check to see if it’s already covered by existing laws. They may find our old and superbly adaptable laws have more than adequate provision to deal with most circumstances already. Perhaps political leaders should concentrate on providing resources to enforce existing laws, rather than clutter our statute books with duplications.

Police stations closing down fast

For it all takes time, and as the Chief Constable of Police Scotland made clear last week, resources are already stretched to breaking point. The new chief has sensibly taken her first five months to get acquainted with her onerous task, and last week laid out her thinking in a series of wide-ranging interviews.

She rightly highlighted some old problems, like police time wasted at court and the amount of time her front-line officers who are tied up looking after people who should be in the care of mental health or social care services. Endemic though these problems seem, they now combine with new demands and a decade of budget cuts to pose a real threat to our traditional system of community policing.

The chief is not alone in her assessment, the Police Federation, the staff organisation that represents most operational officers, agrees and points to a particular problem in Scotland’s rural areas where police stations are closing down fast. It is no secret that Police Scotland inherited many decrepit buildings when it formed a decade ago. There being no money to repair them, they have gradually been closed down.

Police 'firefighting’ crime

While this makes sense economically, their disappearance from our towns is symbolic, for with the stations has gone much of our community-based policing system, and the local connections that make that system work.

Gradually, proactive policing is being whittled away and, with police numbers lower than for ten years, the Chief Constable is right to speak plainly and lay out the consequences in stark terms. Some minor crimes will now go without investigation, and a fire-service type of response policing is well on its way.

As we enter a new political era, we must hope that our elected representatives take stock and concentrate on providing our public services with the means to do their jobs. We do not need new laws, we need to resource the enforcement of existing ones.

Tom Wood is a writer and former police officer

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