Tragedy, farce and why police have to win back our confidence

IT was back in 2013 that former chief constable Sir Stephen House pledged the single police force would be ‘truly world-class’.

Expectations were high as he promised that a streamlined, hi-tech service would rid us of outdated policing methods.

And indeed Sir Stephen, later forced to quit after a string of controversies, was right to say that radical change was coming.

For example, in a rather old-fashioned way, people used to call police or visit a station, or even chat to a beat bobby, to report a crime or a missing person.

Now they ring a call centre that could be many miles away to speak to someone who probably has very little knowledge of the local geography.

Up to 400 officers could be axed to attempt to tackle a looming deficit of nearly £200million — meaning beat bobbies will become harder to find — while many stations have been shut to the public.

So contacting the call centre is often the only realistic option — but all too often these days it is a course of action that leads to a delayed or bungled response.

Take the neighbours of Andrew Bow, who had learning difficulties and was logged on the police database as a vulnerable person.

One of them told the council about the broken windows at Mr Bow’s Edinburgh flat and police were alerted, but no action was taken.

Five days later, the local shopkeeper, fearing for Mr Bow’s safety, rang police with the same concern — and even offered to remain at his shop until 6pm so he could point out the correct flat to officers — who didn’t turn up.

So the following day, the shopkeeper again contacted Bilston Glen, the police call centre in Midlothian, and offered to show the police the location.

Despite linking the two calls, call-handlers did not send officers — and determined no police resources were available.

The Police Investigations and Review (PIRC) Commissioner, Kate Frame, discovered that later that day, another neighbour contacted police to report her ‘concerns’ for Mr Bow’s welfare, but again, no officers were sent out.

Finally, on March 23, 2016, a week after the initial report, a local police sergeant read about the incident on the police system and decided to send officers to Mr Bow’s flat.

They forced entry and found Mr Bow, 37, dead inside; PIRC later found that police officers had been available when the original calls from the public were made, but had not been despatched.

It is a tragic chain of events that makes you wonder what you have to do to get the attention of police.

PIRC is also probing the case of grandfather Albert Insch, 72, who was found dead in his Inverness home last year, nearly 19 hours after police responding to his 999 call went to the wrong address.

Under pressure: Justice Secretary Michael Matheson

The closure of area control rooms in favour of centralisation means the invaluable asset of local knowledge is in danger of being lost forever.

Anyone who has called BT about their broadband only to be put through to someone in Bangalore with a faltering grasp of English would sympathise with callers who struggle to explain local geography to remote operators — but we should expect better from the police.

Bilston Glen was at the centre of the M9 tragedy two years ago when Lamara Bell was left dying for three days following a car crash — as a result of another call-handling blunder that is now the subject of a PIRC report to the Crown Office.

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) later revealed that call centre staff at Bilston Glen were using 2004 software from the now-defunct Strathclyde Police.

Serious IT failings were not addressed until more than three weeks after the M9 crash, in July 2015.

Staff were forced to use notepads because of the ‘slow response’ of the computers, with errors in call-logging presenting a ‘risk to the public and officers attending the incident’.

Earlier this year, HMICS revealed that nearly half of its recommendations for improvements had not been implemented following Miss Bell’s death.

Police say progress has been made since then, and 25 out of 30 recommendations have now been implemented.

But last month we revealed that PIRC was investigating a total of eight cases involving alleged call-handling failures.

The line between tragedy and farce is often a thin one — as evidenced by the latest revelations at the weekend about Bilston Glen.

Source warn it is now close to breaking-point because of a spike in routine and emergency calls - from the Metropolitan Police.

Bilston Glen is one of three huge call centres set up following the creation of Scotland’s single force.

Local call centres from the eight legacy forces were shut down, jobs were cut and the new centres set up to serve the East, West and North of the country.

At busy times, calls made in one part of Scotland can be picked up by another centre.

Almost unbelievably, Police Scotland call-handlers are picking up calls from the Met when their handlers fail to respond.

Staff at Bilston Glen have noticed a recent surge in calls, especially from the Met.

Police say this arrangement isn’t new and applies not just to Bilston Glen but all of its call centres — but is it a good idea?

The fact that someone thought it was, in the wake of the M9 scandal and other high-profile blunders, is deeply disturbing.

Added to HMICS’ disclosure that police hadn’t implemented some of its recommendations following the M9 fiasco (which is also in the hands of prosecutors), you might conclude that police oversight of call-handling is either limited or non-existent.

Yet police chiefs and ministers appear to be in an advanced state of denial, often blaming the media for the negative portrayal of continuing turmoil within the single service — a sure sign of an organisation in crisis.

HMICS has done good work but there should now be a truly independent probe of police call-handling, launched without delay.

It should be led by someone of the calibre of former Lord Advocate Dame Elish Angiolini QC, who uncovered the true scale of the baby ashes scandal in Scotland, and in 2015 reviewed the investigation and prosecution of rape in London.

That forensic scrutiny — of a kind that the Scottish Police Authority has spectacularly failed to offer — is vital to prevent further calamities.

But don’t hold your breath: the single force is an SNP creation, and low-profile Justice Secretary Michael Matheson is locked in the political equivalent of the brace position, with his fingers firmly in his ears.

The last thing he wants is an inquiry into the cost-cutting and botched reorganisation that have taken a wrecking-ball to our most prized public service.