Poisoned chalice? No, this is a chance to tackle the crisis in Police Scotland.

By Graham Grant

WITH a salary of nearly £217,000 and 17,000 officers on the payroll, the job of leading the UK’s second biggest force should be one of the most coveted in policing.

But after five years of unrelenting scandal and political drama, for many the post of Chief Constable of Police Scotland is perhaps the ultimate poisoned chalice.

Since its launch, the single service has had two chiefs: the first was Sir Stephen House, who was forced to quit over his autocratic leadership style, and a string of high-profile controversies.

His successor, Phil Gormley, stepped down earlier this year amid a slew of bullying allegations.

Against this backdrop, it is unsurprising that only three applicants for the top job have come forward: acting chief Iain Livingstone; Bill Skelly, head of Lincolnshire Police and a former senior officer north of the Border; and Johnny Gwynne, currently Deputy Chief Constable at Police Scotland.

Final interviews are due to be held in mid-August, with Mr Livingstone widely seen as most likely to emerge as the favoured candidate.

Once the hierarchical turmoil is resolved, political and media scrutiny of an organisation that seems permanently in the grip of crisis will doubtless intensify – but it is vital that the new leader of the force urgently switches his attention to a bulging in-tray.

Here are the top 10 priorities that will require his immediate action to prevent a further haemorrhaging of confidence in our most prized public service:

STOP POLICE STATION CLOSURES

Hi-tech advances mean police chiefs are convinced stations are outdated – last week Chief Superintendent Ivor Marshall compared modern policing to supermarket home delivery.

But Police Scotland’s own research suggests strong public backing for stations, despite swathes of them shutting to the public as a result of a cost-cutting agenda.

Now some officers are basing themselves in cafés and post offices – but there is a risk of a growing ‘disconnect’ with the public as key symbols of police presence in the community disappear from view.

BOLSTER THE THIN BLUE LINE

Mr Gormley’s ‘Policing 2026’ vision – continued under Mr Livingstone’s tenure – called for a reduction in officer numbers of up to 400.

The force has vowed to balance its books by 2021 amid warnings that cuts of £40million will be needed, and there are claims that in reality almost 1,200 officers are facing the axe.

But many will be sceptical of the SNP’s claim that officers will be freed from backroom duties to bolster an already depleted front line.

TACKLE SOARING SEXUAL AND VIOLENT CRIME

The SNP’s mantra that recorded crime is at a historic low has masked a disturbing increase in sexual and violent crime, including a rise of nearly 20 per cent in the number of rapes in the last year.

The total number of sexual crimes, including rape, jumped from 11,128 to 12,487, a rise of about 12 per cent.

For sexual crime, the detection rate had dropped by 4 per cent to about 54 per cent, meaning almost half of rape cases are unsolved.

While many are historic allegations, Rape Crisis Scotland has said ‘it is likely that at least some of this increase is due to more rapes taking place’.

Violent crime rose by 1.1 per cent in the last year, mainly driven by ‘increases in robberies and common assaults’, including a 7.2 per cent increase in assaults of emergency workers.

CRACKDOWN ON GANGLAND MENACE

Police have made headway in curbing organised crime, but research has found soaring numbers of Scots believe the force is failing to tackle it.

Former Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency director Graeme Pearson has said a recent spike in gang-related violence meant the SNP’s assessment of decreasing crime levels could not be trusted.

Earlier this year, the National Crime Agency revealed there were more than 3,000 gangsters and nearly 170 syndicates in Scotland.

PURSUE THE FUGITIVES

Violent thug James Wright breached his Home Detention Curfew (HDC) and remained at large for nearly six months, during which he murdered father-of-three Craig McClelland.

The case threw the spotlight on how many other warrants police have failed to carry out, and why officers are failing to prioritise HDC fugitives.

The new chief should also lobby ministers to close an absurd legal loophole that means officers are powerless to enter an on-the-run offender’s home, as HDC offenders can refuse to the open door – and officers are unable to force access.

UPGRADE FAILING TECHNOLOGY

Police Scotland remains saddled with creaking technology, which deputy chief officer David Page has warned is giving the ‘bad guys’ an edge – and requires a £200million investment.

Currently Police Scotland’s systems require officers to capture the same information several times, and fewer than 3,000 of its 17,000 officers have mobile devices to enable them to record data on the move.

Meanwhile, a number of different systems continue to operate in different parts of the country after the £46million ‘i6’ scheme aimed at replacing them failed in 2016.

HALT THE CALL-HANDLING FIASCO

Blunders include the case of a father who was found dead two days after police failed to act on emergency calls from his worried family.

The most notorious case was the M9 tragedy in 2015, when Lamara Bell was left dying for three days after a road crash because of alleged call-handling failures.

Top brass insist improvements have been made – but a steady stream of highly critical reports by the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner has undermined public confidence.

SCRAP THE MERGER

The merger of the British Transport Police (BTP) with Police Scotland was due to take place in April 2019 but the timetable has been delayed, with a report setting out recommendations for a new date expected soon.

The UK’s three largest rail unions have condemned the plans and warn the merger would ‘jeopardise’ the specialist policing delivered by the BTP.

There are also claims from union bosses that ministers are ‘putting Nationalist dogma ahead of the safety and well-being of Scotland’s rail passengers’.

A survey earlier this year found only a third of BTP staff intend to transfer to Police Scotland when the forces merge.

The disaster-prone project is a needless distraction – and the next Chief Constable should use his clout to get it scrapped.

BRING ONLINE OFFENDERS TO HEEL

The number of sexual cyber-crimes recorded by police soared by 50 per cent over the last three years, while online fraud is also rising.

There were 8,628 incidents of fraud recorded in 2017/18, a 17.9 per cent increase on the previous year, according to crime figures from the force.

‘Policing 2026’ has responded by aiming to increase the number of cyber-crime specialists – but it is a battle that will require more training and investment.

LAUNCH A NEW WAR ON DRUGS

Chief Superintendent John McKenzie has called for Scotland’s drug problem to be treated as a ‘health’ rather than a ‘justice’ issue.

Recorded Police Warnings mean people caught with cannabis can be spared a court appearance and full criminal record – which the Tories claim is ‘effectively legalising’ the drug ‘by the back door’.

With drug deaths in Scotland at a record level after more than doubling in a decade, it’s time for an end to the ‘soft touch’ approach – and a marked escalation in the war on drugs.

*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on July 31, 2018.

Home Affairs Editor, columnist, leader writer, Scottish Daily Mail. Twitter: @GrahamGGrant Facebook: @sdmnewspaper