Grey Matter: Arrestes development in police relations

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I once had an inkling to be a policeman. I was 15 and a bit, and eagerly awaiting the day when I would no longer have to come up with fresh reasons why I hadn’t done my homework. Joining the polis seemed a way to escape the drudgery of what was most – but not all – of my school day. I had the required height and was pretty certain I could pass the required tests. I sent away for information. And to cover the eventuality that Berwick, Roxburgh and Selkirk Constabulary did not want me, I also contacted the Royal Air Force, The Army, The Royal Navy and HM Prison Service. But it wasn’t to be. For reasons that only became clear to me as I matured, I was steered away from a military career. A career behind prison walls slipped away and I can’t recall why I avoided the long arm of the law. Or perhaps I can, but have no desire to publish and be damned.

I entered an enjoyable career in journalism. It has changed, but I wouldn’t swap it. Back to the police – as a journalist our paths would, of course, cross. And those paths have changed over almost half a century.

As a rookie reporter my first duty of the day was to call at the cop shop in Galashiels to check on what had been happening over the past 24 hours. The station was underneath the clock at the Burgh Chambers. The desk sergeant would turn the book that contained all that had happened in my direction and I would fill my notebook with car crashes, domestics, broken windows, drunk and incapables, and the occasional scrap. There was a mutual trust that had evolved over many years. It was a trust that the reporter breached at his peril. His source of information would end and his editor would want to know why.

Galashiels police station moved to Bridge Street and the old cells became the nuclear bunker from where a selected few would run the region in the event of the nasty Soviets using Bank Street Gardens for target practice. I think it later became a store for toilet rolls.

The station move didn’t affect police-press relations. The coffee was better and there were biscuits. Face-to-face access with senior officers both in uniform and the CID was never a problem. We had murders, fireraisings, Post Office raids, a suspected terrorist attack on a mill because of its Irish connections, anti-apartheid demos and far too many fatal crashes, as well as the daily mundane business. Even chief constables stopped for a blether. Bobbies would chat to reporters on the streets and when walkie-talkies were introduced, you should have heard some of the lines that were fed back to HQ. “Investigating suspicious movement to the rear of the High Street”, declared one PC named Tom, as he scoffed a free haggis supper in the back of a chippy run by a fine man from Stornaway called Alfie.

But times have changed. That direct contact has gone. My enquiries now go through to a hard-pressed press office. Police Scotland, here at least, do not give us the daily doze of local happenings. Attempts to speak directly with senior officers prove difficult. The media of course has changed too. You can never turn the clock back, but you can learn from the past.