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Former Scottish Police Authority chair Andrew Flanagan with Phil Gormley who has resigned as Scotland’s chief constable. PA, CC BY-SA

Police Scotland: another resignation, an undercover report and a national force in disarray

Few were surprised on February 7 when the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) announced that its chief constable Phil Gormley – on special leave from his role since last September – had resigned with immediate effect. On the day a long-awaited report into undercover policing in Scotland was due to be released, this tumultuous event at Police Scotland took centre stage, knocking all other issues out the way.

The sense of inevitability is due to a number of factors. By yesterday seven separate complaints had been lodged against Gormley – some of which if proven would have amounted to gross misconduct. This unprecedented intervention by individuals who worked closely with the chief constable seems to have created insurmountable problems.

Yet equally as important was the alleged intervention of Scottish justice secretary Michael Matheson in the whole affair. Gormley himself refers to the events of “last November” as the reason it would be “impossible” for him to go back to his high-ranking job.

Scottish justice minister Michael Matheson challenged the SPA decision to allow Phil Gormley to return to his post last November. PA, CC BY-SA

Gormley wanted to return last autumn, but when the chair of the SPA – the central watchdog that oversees Police Scotland – informed Matheson that it supported the chief constable’s request, he asked them to think again. As a result, Gormley did not come back. It is critical that a country’s police forces are independent from government and it has been argued that Matheson had overstepped the mark and intervened in an inappropriate way. He is now facing calls to resign himself.

But this situation which verges on fiasco goes deeper than the ending of a career of a senior police officer and potentially that of a senior Scottish government minister. It cuts to the heart of the nature of the national police force in Scotland.

Weakening force

Created in 2013, Police Scotland is now considering its third chief constable in five years. Stephen House, the first chief constable of the new amalgamated Scottish force, resigned a year early after a number of controversial initiatives, notably around the mass searching of young people and the deployment of armed police on non-emergency duties. His successor, Phil Gormley, appointed in January 2016, barely made two years of service.

Read more: The deepening crisis in Scottish policing: a government intervention too far

This reflects an institutional problem: the centralisation of power within Police Scotland went against the grain of centuries of localised tradition and accountability. It was a major change of approach for the SNP government to endorse, and meant there was no counter balance to the power the Police Service held. That responsibility should have fallen to the SPA, yet it has struggled with its role and procedures.

Research from Edinburgh University showed that most SPA members were unsure of their tasks and found their powers useless in the face of Police Scotland senior management. There also was a culture of secrecy which resulted in the early resignation of the chair Andrew Flanagan. He has now been replaced by former Scottish Labour cabinet minister Professor Susan Deacon.

Professor Susan Deacon is now tasked with finding a new chief constable for Scotland, the third in five years. PA, CC BY-SA

She has a major task on her hands now overseeing the appointment of a new chief constable while dealing with the institutional limitations of the Scottish Police Authority.

One serious issue which fundamentally pertains to a centralised police force is the blurred lines of accountability. At the centre is Police Scotland, the SPA and the Scottish government all stepping on one another’s toes. There now needs to be a close examination of these structures, almost continually in crisis management for the last five years.

Undercover police scandal

On the same day as Gormley’s resignation, another policing controversy was returned to the public spotlight after a government investigation report was released: the infiltration of undercover officers in political grassroots organisations.

Revelations that the Met’s Special Demonstration Squad infiltrated these groups and formed intimate relationships with activists have caused widespread dismay over the last few years. This led to the establishment of a UK inquiry to explore undercover policing and its tactics – although it does not cover actions that took place in Scotland nor the role of Scottish Police.

The Scottish government has refused to hold a separate Scottish inquiry – a decision confimed by Michael Matheson after his statement on Gormley’s resignation.

But as an alternative, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate for the Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) was commissioned to carry out an internal investigation into Scottish undercover policing. On February 7 it concluded unequivocally that there was “no evidence” that Police Scotland had “infiltrated social justice campaigns”.

The report focuses on the use of Scottish undercover policing in tackling serious crimes. A total of 423 undercover operations of this nature have been undertaken since 2000 in Scotland. As an examination of the policing of serious criminal behaviour, the report is certainly interesting, but it fails to deal with the central issue that it was set up to investigate: the widespread use of undercover policing in political campaigns.

The Met has conceded it sent undercover officers to Scotland for the G8 Summit at Gleneagles in 2005 where political activists gathered to protest. PA

Although the report is adamant no Scottish police officers engaged in any kind of infiltration activity, it concedes that undercover English officers spent periods of time north of the border. Indeed, the SDS deployed 11 officers over a decade in Scotland – mainly around the G8 summit in 2005 when world leaders including George W Bush and Tony Blair gathered at Gleneagles.

The report claims that during that event they operated with “the full knowledge” of Tayside Police. But the lack of detail and openness in the report has not satisfied campaigners for a full Scottish public inquiry.

The fact that Gormley had direct oversight of undercover policing at the Met before he became Scotland’s chief constable just adds another curious twist to the ongoing Police Scotland saga. Now his resignation puts to rest one long-running element of what many consider a damning indictment of Scotland’s centralised police force. But lack of institutional reform and the blurring of accountability means further problems will surely not be far away.

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