Police chief seeks to defend record amid stop and search 'mistake'

Written by Alan Robertson on 19 February 2015 in News

Sir Stephen House insists force is not shying away from accountability

Scotland’s chief constable has rebuffed claims that trust in the single force is “ebbing fast” as he admitted making a mistake in evidence on release of stop and search records.

Police Scotland chief constable Sir Stephen House told the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) last week that the Information Commissioner had compelled the service to hand over stop search data that was “not fit for public consumption”.

House, who wrote to the police watchdog on Monday to clarify that release was instead based on the “risk” of being ordered to do so, told Holyrood’s justice sub-committee on policing that he “made a mistake in the language that I used”.

“I don’t see anything wrong with, if you make a mistake, acknowledging that you made a mistake and apologising to the board you’re accountable [to] for that mistake,” he told MSPs. “And that’s exactly what I did.”

However, he disputed suggestions of growing public concern about stop and search, claiming instead that there is “absolutely justified interest” by a large number of people on the balance between police powers and individual liberties.

Police Scotland announced last June that young people aged under 12 would no longer be consensually searched, a policy change they were accused of reneging on after figures emerged showing 356 instances had been recorded in the time since.

The force has since said that only 18 consensual searches went against force policy after an audit – which the SPA has asked Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland to verify – revealed a range of recording errors.

Assistant Chief Constable Mawson told the sub-committee that 20,086 records had been lost because a “computer programmer pressed a wrong button” between May and July of last year but that the "vast majority" have since been retrieved.

Improvements to the database used by Police Scotland to record stop and search activity was now “top of [the] priority list” to ensure it is “easier to use and easier to interrogate”, Sir Stephen said.​

Amid a suggestion from Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Alison McInnes that trust in Police Scotland was “ebbing fast”, he added: “I don’t accept your premise that confidence is ebbing fast - our confidence levels show that they remain high in the 80s.

“We haven’t seen the drop away of that under this issue. Of course we don’t want the sort of headlines that we’ve had but part of the reason for coming here today is to try and address those headlines and try and set the record straight.

“And where we made a mistake and I’ve already said it once, we acknowledge that I made a mistake in the language that I used. I shouldn’t have used that language.”

Pressed by McInnes on whether he finds it a “nuisance” to have to account for the force’s actions to the Authority and the Scottish Parliament, House said: “I take very seriously my duty to account to the SPA and to parliament.

“Part of the reason why we’re all here is to try and clarify the situation and also that’s why we met the police authority last Friday to try and talk them through recent developments. I take that very seriously.”

Many parts of Scotland are much safer today than five years ago due to the effective use of stop and search, House said, a claim challenged by McInnes on the basis of last May's scrutiny review by the SPA, which failed to find evidence of a “causal relationship” between stop and search levels and a reduction in violent crime or anti-social behaviour.

Sir Stephen reiterated that the only target in place for stop and search relates to the percentage deemed positive rather than the number carried out.

Asked by John Finnie if it’s possible a perception exists among frontline officers that they are under pressure to deliver targets, House said: “It is possible they’re under that perception and I’m grateful for this opportunity yet again to say to them as I have done on numerous occasions internally and externally and to a number of people in this room, that there are no targets on volume in terms of stop and search.”

Last week, the Scottish Police Federation launched a withering attack on both politicians and the leadership of Police Scotland for their handling of the stop search issue.

In an open letter to MSPs, general secretary Calum Steele suggested Police Scotland has to carry “much of the responsibility for the hostility” towards the tactic following a “numbers driven target approach” that was “ill-conceived and resulted in attention being directed towards meaningless numbers rather than the sensible objective of crime prevention and detection”.

Asked about the comments, House said the two have “different opinions”. Steele told MSPs he believed personal assurances from the chief constable that individual targets are not being imposed but that rank-and-file officers told a different story.

“There is clearly a disconnect between the messaging that’s been delivered on the ground and the messaging that’s been delivered by the chief constable,” added Steele.

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