Law in action: interview with DCC Iain Livingstone

Written by Tom Freeman on 2 February 2018 in Inside Politics

Exclusive: Police Scotland's interim chief constable says governance and accountability issues haven’t destabilised the force 

DCC Iain Livingstone - credit David Anderson/Holyrood

With senior officers suspended and a chief constable on special leave over bullying allegations, Scotland’s single police force hit the headlines again for all the wrong reasons.

After it emerged that he’d intervened in a decision by the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) to invite Chief Constable Phil Gormley back to work in November, Justice Secretary Michael Matheson gave a statement to MSPs.

Matheson told parliament the SPA had made the decision and written to Gormley without consulting the Police Investigations & Review Commissioner (PIRC), which was conducting the investigation into the complaints, senior Police Scotland staff or ministers.

“I took the view that these clear deficiencies in the process were completely unacceptable,” he said. “I made clear to the former chair that I could not have confidence in a decision that had been reached without such significant issues having been properly addressed.”

Correspondence between Gormley’s lawyer and the SPA was then published by Holyrood’s Public Audit Committee, which showed an agreed press release from 9 November stating the SPA had taken “necessary steps with Police Scotland to ensure suitable arrangements are put in place to support the welfare of all involved parties until the alleged conduct issues are concluded”. 

But as Holyrood revealed earlier this month, this was not the case. Deputy Chief Constable Iain Livingstone, who is leading Police Scotland in Gormley’s absence, told us it was a draft press release he hadn’t seen. “It makes mention that the SPA had made arrangements to support the welfare of all involved parties. That’s not true,” he said. 

“It may have been the intention to have made those arrangements. But it had not happened. That is categorical.”

While many focused on Matheson’s role in proceedings and whether meetings were minuted, questions remained over what had driven the SPA to keep decisions hidden from the force.

The SPA has also been criticised by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland and Audit Scotland, and its former senior leadership team has since left.

Former chair Andrew Flanagan, who had written to Gormley inviting him back to work, resigned, while former chief executive John Foley took early retirement in October. Both were questioned by MSPs last week.

Gormley’s wife Claire – herself a retired senior police officer – was also given a platform in the Daily Mail to defend her husband, who she claimed  had been “vilified” by the process.

She added that her husband had not been supported by the SPA and even suggested he had been seen as an “outsider” because he “doesn’t have a Scottish accent”.

In fact, most of Scotland’s police chiefs have been appointed from England, including most of the regional forces’ chiefs and Gormley’s predecessor, Sir Stephen House, who was born in Scotland but like Gormley made his name in the Met.  

Livingstone, then, is the first person to lead Police Scotland having cut his policing teeth in Scotland. He had applied for the job to replace House, but after it was given to Gormley, decided to take early retirement. 

However, when the chief constable went on gardening leave following allegations of gross misconduct, Livingstone felt he should stay in post. 

“It was the right thing to do, and I’ve said in the past it was my duty to do it,” he says. “To be honest, I wouldn’t have been comfortable in myself sitting at home feeling I could’ve made a real contribution.”

Holyrood sits down with the acting chief constable before Flanagan and Foley’s appearance in parliament, and he insists that not only had they not told him of Gormley’s return to work, Gormley himself had given no indication of such plans.

In effect, Gormley would have turned up at work the following day unannounced.

“It’s so unusual as to take people aback. The lack of engagement with officers,” says Livingstone.  “You’ve got individual officers and members of staff who had concerns there. I certainly had concerns for them, even if the authority didn’t.”

Livingstone insists his focus has been on the service and its staff.

“The level of political interest and scrutiny reflects how important policing is. But you also find a lot of politicians say, ‘actually, the policing in my area and the officers who do that policing are really good.’ Well actually, that is policing. That is Police Scotland.” 

Livingstone, who has been deputy chief constable for five years, joined Lothian and Borders Police CID in 1992 as a six-month trainee detective after general training in west Edinburgh. 

His early footballing career stalled when he went to Aberdeen University to study law, receiving a first-class honours degree. He then joined large commercial firm Maclay Murray & Spens as a trainee.

“I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I thought. I was interested in the law, but the practice of it didn’t mirror that. [I wanted] law in action, if you like.”

His decision to apply to join the police caused “some anxiety” in the family, particularly his father who thought he was “being a bit idealistic, and perhaps a bit naïve about the challenges I might get”.

Edinburgh in the early 1990s was a testing workplace compared to a big legal firm, particularly in Livingstone’s beat as part of C-division in Wester Hailes, where the capital’s heroin and HIV legacy had coincided with “extreme deprivation”.

“Parts of Clovenstone and Wester Hailes Drive, it was demanding … some of the social issues the police service had to pick up were acute,” he remembers.

Livingstone had a young family, with his first daughter, now also a serving police officer, born in 1990. It made some situations such as the deaths of young children very demanding. Resilience, he says, comes with the job.

“I always say to new recruits what was said to me when I joined: ‘If you’re dealing with members of the public, try and deal with them the way you’d want your own family to be dealt with.’ 

“Even if they’re not being polite to you, they’re often in extreme stress, distress, they’re under some substance that’s altered their behaviour, but nevertheless if we enforce the law and support people, do it in a way you’d want your own family dealt with.”

Rarely does a detective climb the ranks into a more strategic role, but Livingstone gained a year’s Fulbright scholarship in New York, which included attachments within the NYPD and FBI.

He says it gave him an international perspective.

“I do think that’s important, because if you look at some of the contemporary issues with Police Scotland, what is the police service you’d prefer? Do you want the police service of Portugal? Do you want the police service of New Jersey? Or the police service of parts of England and Wales? The south of Ireland? Because in my view, on a comparative basis, we do well. 

“Do we have things we can improve on? Yes, we do. But our international reputation is extremely high.”

Holyrood points to the years of negative headlines since the merger of the forces, including the deaths of Lamara Bell and John Yuill, who lay in a car after a crash for three days, Kirkcaldy man Sheku Bayoh who died after being arrested, controversies around stop and search tactics and the use of firearms, and the capability of contact centres. 

Livingstone suggests it has been wrong to pin these issues on the merger into a single force.

“There were critical incidents in policing before Police Scotland, under the eight-force model. There were critical incidents in policing before the reformation in 1975 towards the regional forces,” he says.

However, he acknowledges the merger could have been done better.

“Had we had more time, I think that would’ve helped. It was quite a compressed timeframe. 

“I would never say it went smoothly and it’s an unqualified success. I just wouldn’t. I’ve recognised we could have done things better, even against that timeframe.”

The test, according to Livingstone, is how policing deals with its challenges.

“Given the nature of the threats and vulnerabilities that modern society now has to face, whether it’s online child abuse, international terrorism, organised child sexual exploitation, online fraud, as well as people dying on the roads, street violence and domestic violence, current and historic sexual abuse, I do think Scotland is safer now than if we had not gone through that reform programme, given the challenges we face.”

For Livingstone, the legitimacy of policing is a philosophical debate, one which has evolved with society, shifting from a focus on just the public space to what goes on behind closed doors.

“If you go back to the 90s, when I started, people would say ‘that’s just a domestic, that’s a matter for the family, for that husband and wife to resolve’. It was a case of if it happens in the street, we deal with it, we went to them, advice given and then leave it. That would not happen now.” 

However, Livingstone says there is not yet the same level of clarity around the legitimacy of police activity in “the virtual space” where people are defrauded, exploited and radicalised online.

“They are a matter for society as a whole to decide, but if you want to prevent harm and protect the vulnerable, and identify and bring offenders to justice who are operating in this virtual world, we do need to have that debate, so the police can have legitimacy.”

But don’t people then see them as snooping on our private lives? There is suspicion surrounding intrusions like monitoring online activity.

“Exactly. That’s part of our task. I see policing fundamentally about protecting the vulnerable and the enforcement of human rights. 

“I see policing in Scotland as benevolent. It’s supportive. It’s part of the communities, it’s there to support the communities. ‘The police is the public and the public is the police,’ that’s the classic [Robert] Peel quote, and I think in Scotland that’s really important. 

“You don’t get your legitimacy from an act of parliament, you get your legitimacy by policing by consent.”

It all sounds more like the Lothian and Borders’ legacy of harm reduction than Strathclyde’s reputation for zero tolerance. 

But it was the latter which initially characterised House’s time in charge of the unified force. Livingstone says the differences were exaggerated and the reality more complicated.

“I do think, and I was part of it, that in the early days, we valued consistency and uniformity to a high level because we wanted to establish a baseline of standard.”

Standards were mandated across the country around rape and domestic abuse, for example.

“Now in my judgement, you needed to do that in the early years to create a solid foundation. Undoubtedly, we now inevitably want to move, and probably have always been moving to a more flexible model.

“I think we do recognise some of that criticism is fair, that ‘one size doesn’t fit all’, that we need to get the benefits of specialist capability and a standard quality response regardless of where you live … to key vulnerabilities.”

Livingstone compares it to the NHS, where primary care professionals like GPs and health visitors “lead on preventative work and on initial response to early signs and initial symptoms,” but specialists – based at the new Scottish Crime Campus at Gartcosh – take on the more complex cases.

How does that square with reports of local police station closures and reduced opening times? Livingstone says it reflects the same pattern as the closure of local shops and banks as people switch their business online.

“We had a policing model that was fit for 40 or 50 years ago. Now we need to have a policing model that’s right [for now].”

Even if he doesn’t think the issues have been about the merger, it has meant policing issues are raised in the Scottish Parliament in a way that didn’t happen before, something which has intensified since the 2014 independence referendum. 

“If you look at the politicians themselves, as I recall, a lot of the debate about whether a single service was a good thing or a bad thing didn’t necessarily divide on party political grounds. It tended to divide on whether you practised your politics nationally or locally,” Livingstone says.

“As I say, the police get their legitimacy from the public and part of that legitimacy comes from democratic accountability and elected members. Political scrutiny and political interest is something I utterly welcome, because we don’t have legitimacy without it.”

But while local policing plans and scrutiny exist through local scrutiny panels, Livingstone says more has been done to “recognise the legitimacy of local government”.

“The question for me, constitutionally and structurally, is could the need for local government involvement be enhanced and supported? I think it would benefit policing if it could be.”

This kind of strategic thinking doesn’t sound like someone set on retirement at only 52. There is a sense Livingstone is making his contribution, both operationally and embedding a longer-term vision. 

“We’ve had some difficult days but the organisation has gone forward. We’ve dealt with further difficulties in terms of leadership and we’ve moved on,” he says.

There is a sense of frustration, though, with the headlines.

“Organisationally, if you look back over the festive period, Christmas and New Year, there’s not an undetected murder, a public order incident, people injured at a Hogmanay street party. There’s not a large-scale important event that went wrong. We’ve managed to protect the vulnerable around domestic violence and domestic abuse. We’ve continued to enforce safety on the roads through our drink driving campaign.

“And we’ve come through that period in our operational response where everybody in Police Scotland, all the men and women, have done an outstanding job. There’s no commentary around that, because of the issues around governance and accountability. 

“I understand why that is, but it’s nevertheless important to stress when you see Police Scotland in the media, the commentary, you see adjectives like ‘beleaguered’ or ‘crisis-hit’, that’s not right. I disagree with that. Policing in Scotland is not in crisis. Policing in Scotland is strong, resilient and it’s got a dedicated workforce of men and women that many other organisations would be jealous to try and get.” 

Now, he argues, there’s “a need to move forward” after the controversies surrounding the SPA.

“There’s been a welcome change in the police authority and a new chair has come in, a new chief operating officer. They’ve come in and are much more engaged. They are working in a collaborative style. They’re communicating with Police Scotland far better than previously. 

“We needed to be stable while the police authority made those changes. It has been difficult, individually and collectively for the leadership team at Police Scotland, but all elements of policing can be difficult and challenging. That’s what we’re here to do.” 

But what if Gormley just turns up out of the blue, as he almost did in November? 

“Policing will continue however Mr Gormley’s scenario is resolved. I won’t be revisiting my retirement plan until I’m satisfied policing has a level of stability attached to it. 

“Hopefully, there will be communication if Mr Gormley comes back to work, that it is done in a measured manner with a proper handover and that he is given the support should he return to work. 

“Similarly, other people who have made complaints in regard to Mr Gormley, that they are treated with respect and their interests are protected.

“At the moment many individuals are involved, but what’s key is that everyone’s rights, privacy and entitlements are acknowledged, and that however this is resolved, my duty is to keep focused on the police service who are there to serve the people of Scotland while these other issues play out.” 

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