The chronic removal of frontline police officers to tackle acute challenges in specialist areas is stretching the service on a local level, a senior officer has told MSPs.
Chief Superintendent Ivor Marshall, president of the Association of Scottish Police Superintendents, said a “lack of clarity” probably exists about where resources need to be.
He was giving evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee as it began an examination of the creation of Scotland’s single police and fire services more than five years on from the point when they were launched.
The witness spoke in response to Labour MSP Daniel Johnson, who asked whether the creation of specialist divisions within the police force had come at a cost to local divisions.
Mr Marshall said: “I would suggest that there probably is lack of clarity about where the resources need to be in a local level and whether or not those demands are being addressed appropriately, whether we’ve got that right, and whether the withdrawal of perhaps resources that used to be in local policing to support those centralist roles has been the right thing.
“The indications are that there has been a removal of some resources into those centralist roles but there may be a good business case for that.
“Sometimes what you’re fighting against is the acute challenges – perhaps of a sex abuse inquiry that needs to be resourced in the time-critical way, or firearms resources that need to be uplifted because of the terror threat going up – so it’s acute and the strategic commanders have to make that decision to put resources to that and that has to come from somewhere.
“The most obvious place where it all trickles down and comes from is from the front line, operational uniform resources, because you always tend to take people away from there.
“The question is, (with) that chronic removal over time, which is drip, drip, drip, because you’re addressing acute issues, what’s happening there?
“I know our federation colleagues, who are more in tune with the frontline officers in uniform, feel that that chronic erosion, perhaps, is not being seen and that there’s a stretch in local policing which is getting to a very, very difficult point.”
Professor Nick Fyfe, of the Scottish Institute for Policing Research, said its research showed local officers can see the benefits of having specialist resources to access, particularly when it comes to complex crimes.
He said, however, that officers have been concerned about “the redeployment of officers from local policing teams into those specialist services and then not being replaced”.
He continued: “I think their other concern is about how they access those resources, how do they bid for them and how bureaucratic is that process…
“I think a third theme is just that interface between specialised centralised resources and the local knowledge of local officers.
“Local officers have a huge amount and very rich local knowledge about what is happening in their communities, so there needs to be an effective way that that knowledge is shared with more specialist teams that might be coming in from outwith that local area.”
He also spoke of a sense that those working in specialist functions are well supported in terms of career development, while local policing teams were “relatively neglected” in that area.
Both witnesses also agreed the complexity of merging the eight regional forces into one was “underestimated” at the start.
Meanwhile, Denise Christie of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) Scotland, said the union was initially supportive of a single Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, but claimed the move has amounted to a loss of over 700 frontline firefighters and the closure of five operational fire control rooms.
A fire service spokeswoman said: “Our organisation is intelligence-led and, while the FBU Scotland continues to focus on headcount, we continue to focus on what really matters, saving lives and keeping people safe.
“We continue to actively recruit and recently welcomed our largest ever intake of 103 frontline firefighters.”