Debate needed on police officer numbers, urges new Scottish Police Authority member
Scottish Police Authority will meet for full board meeting later today
Scotland needs to have a debate about police officer numbers “if we’re going to be able to balance budgets”, according to one of the newest members of the Scottish Police Authority.
George Graham, the first former chief constable to be recruited by the SPA when appointed in May, said a discussion on maintaining current police officer levels “is not something we should shy away from”.
Graham also launched a staunch defence of the scrutiny body amid renewed criticism over the last few months.
“Policing isn’t really broken, it’s not in a mega crisis,” he told Holyrood. “There are an awful lot of good things happening in a very challenging environment.”
The Scottish Government has had a commitment in place since 2007 to maintain officer numbers above 17,234, though outgoing SPA chair Vic Emery has previously questioned its long-term sustainability.
Police Scotland chief constable Sir Stephen House warned earlier this year that the national force faces “extreme measures” to plug an £11m budgetary shortfall this year.
Graham, who served as deputy chief constable of Dumfries and Galloway Constabulary as well as chief constable of Northern Constabulary during 31 years in Scottish policing, said legacy forces had benefitted from the government commitment on officer numbers.
However, he said he wants the SPA to “instigate a discussion that says do we want to continue to have 17,234 police officers or can we do this differently”.
“I don’t think the Authority really could rule out that we need to look closely at can we sustain 17,234,” he said. “But I would couch it really not in terms of can we afford 17,234 but actually do we need 17,234?
“So if we are investing in technology, changing how we police Scotland, [we need to be] working with communities, with the Police Service of Scotland, with government colleagues, with HMICS and everyone else to actually work out in our own minds what is the right number of police officers to provide a very effective policing service in Scotland.
“In the next few years I think we’re going to have to have a look at that number if we’re going to be able to balance budgets.”
Graham acknowledged such a discussion is likely to be contentious but said a national debate with a “very strong voice” from communities across Scotland is needed.
While Graham said political parties were entitled to include commitments in upcoming manifestos for the 2016 Holyrood election, he encouraged a “discussion about the evidence base” for them.
The SPA board will meet later for their first full public board meeting since calls for House to resign following the M9 crash which saw two lives lost.
Amid continued criticism over scrutiny of the national force, former SNP leader Gordon Wilson last week called for a “root and branch” reform of the single service and for abolition of the SPA.
Graham claimed that work undertaken by the Authority on matters such as Police Scotland’s estates strategy and the deployment of armed officers had been overlooked with “some people willfully not wanting to see what the SPA are doing”.
“These things are conveniently swept under the carpet by people who want to just make a headline,” he added. “And I am not criticising anyone, of course policing is going to always be political and in the headlines.
“But I do think it’s important to try and find some balance and I wouldn’t recognise the police authority as a ‘toothless watchdog’.”
However, he acknowledged that the body needed to be more proactive in their work and improve their engagement with local scrutiny panels.
Vic Emery will in the chair for the final time today after announcing in June his intention to stand down.
Graham, who also held the post of HM Inspector of Constabulary in Scotland up until January of last year, has ruled himself out of applying for the top job.
“Being where I was, having being a senior police officer and HMICS, my own personal opinion is that it’s not right for me to be the chair of an independent police authority,” he said.
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