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Police Scotland's institutional failures

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Police forces across the UK are attempting to rebuild public trust after the scandals of recent years. Sir Mark Rowley, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, has committed to sweeping changes, including improved vetting and the faster dismissal of problematic officers. But he rejected the conclusion of an excoriating review by Louise Casey that his force was "institutionally" racist, sexist and homophobic. Sir Mark rightly argued that the term is ambiguous and political.

Sir Iain Livingstone, the chief constable of Police Scotland, has no such qualms. "Institutional racism, sexism, misogyny and discrimination exist," he said today. "Police Scotland is institutionally racist and discriminatory." It is believed to be the first time a police chief has used such highly charged language. It should be the last.

Some campaigners argue that only by accepting the "institutional" nature of the problem can it be correctly addressed. They resist the idea that a small number of bad apples can be blamed for the appalling criminality and misconduct that has been found within police forces.

But the effect of Sir Iain's comments was to tar everyone in Police Scotland with the same brush. Even if he made pains to assert that he did not mean that all individual staff or officers were racist or sexist, that is inevitably how many people will interpret his remarks.

Judging by a recent review, there is clearly an uncomfortable number of racist and misogynistic officers in Police Scotland, as well as serious issues with how complaints are dealt with. But resorting to such easily misinterpreted generalisations about the whole institution - particularly one that Sir Iain has been in charge of for around half of its existence - is surely the opposite of a practical plan for change.

It is hardly likely to encourage people, particularly women and ethnic minorities, to believe that most officers are not dangerous but instead their allies in the fight against criminality. Demoralised forces will also struggle to recruit and retain the most talented and committed people.

Moreover, Sir Iain failed to mention another bias that Police Scotland has been accused of. It has long faced controversy for appearing to be too close to the ruling SNP, a concern that has gained fresh impetus in light of the investigation into the party and some of its leading members. Is Police Scotland "institutionally" nationalist? Sir Iain is unlikely to admit so readily to that.

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