LOCAL accountability and resource levels were two main issues of concern last week when councillors met senior police officers to discuss looming reforms and tackling crime in the Borders, writes Mark Entwistle.
Steve Allen, Deputy Chief Constable of Lothian and Borders Police, and Chief Superintendent Graham Sinclair, commander of G Division in the Borders, addressed the full Scottish Borders Council (SBC).
Justice minister Kenny MacAskill wants all eight Scottish forces to merge into a unified organisation, under the command of one chief constable, and overseen by an 11-strong authority made up of political appointees. SBC’s official response to the government consultation paper includes the view that the new Scottish Police Authority should instead be comprised of 32 elected councillors.
Mr Sinclair said the Borders, which had seen a 10 per cent decrease in reported crime over the last year, already enjoyed the lowest crime rate in the Lothian and Borders force area.
“This also means there are fewer victims of crime and less disturbance to people’s lives,” he said. “Our priorities are to reduce the harmful effects of drugs and alcohol; to tackle antisocial behaviour; to reduce the number of road fatalities and casualties; to protect the most vulnerable adults and children in our society.
“Our performance is good but not as good as it can be.”
He added that there were three murder enquiries running in the Borders – an exceptional situation for the region.
On the subject of savings and cutbacks, Mr Sinclair said that, for every pound in his budget, 95p went on people. “The aim is to maintain officer numbers, rather than front counters,” he said, addressing concerns about cuts in station opening hours.
Councillors also raised concerns that a single force could mean resources being sucked away from the Borders and national priorities set which had little relevance to this region.
Mr Allen said councillors could expect to see a single Scottish police service in about 18 months, but that the new chief constable would probably be identified in January 2013.
He promised that the relationship between the centre and local policing was at the heart of the debate over reform. “I’m optimistic this is an opportunity to improve the link between elected members and local communities, and priorities, local resources and the mechanisms to hold the police to account.”
He moved to allay fears about local policing priorities being overridden by national ones set outwith the Borders.
“I can’t deny we have to have the right person to lead the new organisation. But I have to say, I can’t, in all my years in the force, ever remember a time which saw the centre set priorities that were at odds with local priorities.”
Asked about the perception police numbers on the streets were falling and whether there was a guarantee they would not be cut, Mr Allen said the government was committed to maintaining the number of Scottish officers at its current level – 17,234.
Mr Sinclair said there were more officers on Borders streets than ever before. “There are now 236 officers in the Borders deployed over a huge area. There are three command areas comprising five teams providing 24/7 coverage.
“But the situation is different to what the public sees – we design shifts so that we can deploy the majority of our officers on Friday and Saturday nights, which are the busiest times.
“But if you lift someone in Eyemouth and have to transport them to Hawick, those officers are then off the streets for nearly the whole of their shift. The idea that there are cops sitting in back rooms drinking coffee just doesn’t happen.
“Necessary paperwork is also something that keeps officers off the streets.
“But nobody sees the officers working in public protection or on surveillance duties. Nobody sees the plain clothes officers or those managing sex offenders in the community.”
z Two weeks ago, a delegation of councillors met Mr MacAskill at which the Borders group floated the idea of a pilot scheme for policing in the region under the reforms.
Councillor Alec Nicol (LD, Kelso and District) said the proposed pilot was born of fears that resource allocation for policing and fire and rescue services after reforms could be based on a national view of priorities and perceived need.
The pilot would involve a Borders division for policing, with involvement from elected councillors. It would seek to maintain adequate resources and staffing levels and would see the police operations led by a divisional commander of chief superintendent rank.
There would also be a distinct and identifiable Borders command and control structure for local fire and rescue services.