Under inspection: HMICS Derek Penman

Written by Alan Robertson on 30 April 2014 in Interviews

New HMICS head and former cop prepares to take a fresh direction

Derek Penman has always shown a penchant for having an independent streak. At age 17, he turned down a place at university to read law and instead joined the police as a cadet (Penman subsequently graduated with an honours degree in law from the University of Glasgow 11 years later). His father, also a police officer at legacy Central Scotland, knew nothing of it. “It was interesting when the application form came across his desk – [it] made for an interesting evening at home that night,” jokes Penman, who went on to become Temporary Chief Constable of Central Scotland almost three decades later.

One suspects this doing-things-your-own-way attitude could serve Penman well in his new post as Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary (HMIC) for Scotland where he has been charged with inspection, monitoring and evaluating the performance of Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority.

Having spent nine months within Sir Stephen House’s top team – Penman served as Assistant Chief Constable in charge of local policing in the north from 1 April last year – he doesn’t doubt some observers might see his appointment this January as symptomatic of the single service simply marking its own homework. If his actions match his words, it’s clear this won’t be the case.

“My take on that is I have got 30 years of police service,” he says. “I have had the benefit of working now in four separate police organisations; I have significant experience within the role. But most importantly, the HMIC role is an independent role, you’re appointed under Royal Warrant from Her Majesty the Queen. Despite having been part of Police Scotland for that short time, I have worked alongside Steve House, the Chief Constable, as a chief constable around the table of ACPOS council so, for me, it is very much an independent role and one which I look forward to doing in an independent way... That [Police Scotland] was nine months out of a 30-year career. I’ve been a chief officer for around six years. I have the experience and the networks, both within Police Scotland and outwith Police Scotland, and I think that gives me the ability to be objective in my scrutiny of Police Scotland.”

In that respect, it is fair to say that policing in Scotland has never been under so much scrutiny, whether it be by politicians, the press, or the likes of the SPA and Police Investigations & Review Commissioner. Penman’s first ten weeks in post, then, have been spent identifying HMIC’s role in what is now a markedly different space.

“We recognise that in that policing landscape in Scotland, the public will expect there to be real robust scrutiny over a single police service; HMIC really has to position itself to be able to do that,” he tells Holyrood.

“Our historic approach has been to do three or four large-scale pieces of inspection work over the year that add value. But I don’t think they give us enough agility in terms of Police Scotland. What we have done is design a new programme that will very much focus on local policing and that gives us the ability to respond to any issues that might arise as time passes. That way, we will be able to make sure that we can plug into stuff that needs to be done.”

HMIC will embark on a new rolling inspection programme – Local Policing Plus – that will see each of Scotland’s 14 police divisions visited, one every three months, from September this year. Each inspection is likely to be announced three months in advance to tap into timely issues for communities and local scrutiny boards, while, at the same time, keeping Police Scotland on its toes. A pilot project is to run in Fife this June to ensure their revised methodology is up to scratch.

Inspections will involve a detailed look at performance in individual localities for the benefit of affected communities, while touching on areas with a regional dimension – like control rooms – or a national one – such as serious organised crime. Evidence that recommendations of good practice not necessarily local in nature have been acted upon will be sought as HMIC goes round the country. “My own personal view just now is that operational frontline policing is as strong as it has ever been, it is stronger than it was a year ago when eight forces were here,” says Penman.

“I think a lot of the narrative that has emerged around regional areas and centralisation is around some of the core functions. Things like control rooms are one of the issues that have come up. From HMIC’s perspective, the test of all of that will be the service that local communities continue to get as opposed to, perhaps, how that service is delivered. If changes are moving across the country, as we go around and inspect local divisions, we will be very keen to make sure that local communities are getting the same or a better service than they were before those changes took place.”

Penman, whose time within Police Scotland was spent in charge of local policing for the former Northern, Grampian and Tayside forces, rejects notions of a ‘Strathclydisation’ having taken place. However, he does hint that greater autonomy for distinctive policing is possible.

“It is very early days in terms of Police Scotland. The challenge in bringing a new organisation together and taking what was effectively eight separate organisations into one new organisation [and] to try and create a new single identity within 12 months is a hugely demanding task.

“An element of that I think is to have people all pointing in the same direction and understanding what policing is about in Scotland. Having got that and being able to deliver and maintain performance while all of that is happening is a significant achievement. I think what we’ll see now, in terms of local policing and commanders, is [them] having more empowerment and having the ability to actually link their policing style to that of the communities.”

HMIC is expected to play a role in this by ensuring that local policing plans and the suite of ward plans beneath them have been properly consulted on and not only tie in with the priorities of the communities they intend to serve but are being examined effectively by local scrutiny boards.

As for HMIC’s own work, an assessment on how road policing is shaping up under Police Scotland is expected within the next few months while other thematic inspections on the custody and care of prisoners, as well as forensic services – which is provided to the police and the Crown by the SPA – are in the pipeline.

Work examining crime recording is expected to occur later in the year amid continuous claims that crime figures are being ‘massaged’. HMIC has been working on recording for the past decade, albeit its emphasis has been on the processes by which the legacy police forces audited crime recording standards. “There was a piece of work done in Police Scotland last year that we reported on publicly. This year we’ll do that but we’ll also intend to go down a bit deeper into individual officers recording of crime just to provide that reassurance to the communities of Scotland that crime is being recorded properly and ethically,” says Penman. His own experience in those areas in which he served tells him that officers always record crime in an ethical manner. “Having said that, the opportunity for HMIC now is to go in and actually test that across the whole of the country,” he says.

It is likely too that a separate look at stop and search will attract just as much attention. Work on this is scheduled to start in June once a review by the SPA is published, Holyrood can reveal. The exercise, which is expected to last two to three months, will be focused on the recording of stop search and, via individual audits, checking that officers have recorded against what are on their computer systems.

“What we are really going to focus in on is some of the assertions that have been made that officers are making up stop search figures, so we want to go in and test that to see if it is true and, if it is true, to the extent that that takes place,” says Penman.

“But, again, as well as providing the audit function, we’re also here to look at continuous improvement, so an aspect, for me, would be what improvements would have to be put into any system to make sure that ethical recording can take place [and] what checks and balances can be put in in relation to that to make sure that the public can have confidence in the figures that are being put forward.”

Part of HMIC’s work, therefore, will be to assess what Police Scotland and the SPA understand by productivity, performance and target setting and how that is communicated to staff. Drawing on his experience inside the single force, Penman insists, categorically, that officers were never set individual targets for stop search and that senior staff were clear in relation to how the tactic ought to be deployed.

“From an executive level, I certainly was not aware of any issues around stop search, but then you can’t ignore the assertions that have been made by the staff associations coming forward. So whether those messages [from senior staff] have got through to frontline staff or whether they are just rumours and speculation by officers who are looking at different areas, remains to be seen.

“It’s something that we would want to get to the bottom of from HMIC’s perspective because, quite frankly, it is not helpful from a public confidence point of view to have some of this played out in the media that officers are making up figures. We need to make sure that we understand what the extent if any of that is and more importantly, what improvements we can put in place to stop it happening.”

Given HMIC is not the only scrutiny body on the scene, Penman is keen to underline a commitment to engage with all parties. As part of their inspection programme, work will be undertaken with the SPA around leadership and governance, while Penman is keen to use findings uncovered by PIRC to inform inspections of local policing. He would also welcome regularly being brought before the parliament’s sub-committee on policing to ensure the work that HMIC itself produces is seen to be subject to scrutiny.

The specifics of how HMIC intends to respond to the new policing landscape will be contained in their corporate strategy and annual scrutiny plan, which are both due to be published within the next few weeks. For Penman, it is a time to “refresh and reposition” an organisation that has been in existence for 157 years. The independent streak continues.

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