In September 2012, Stephen House was appointed as Chief Constable of the newly formed Police Scotland. But our problems with the now Sir Stevie started long before then. As someone with a fixation with numbers, there’s some sort of justice in him taking the coveted #52 spot. He’s been at least a year’s worth of wanker.
The excuse for this week’s induction is the shocking new figure that around 1 in 5 Glaswegians are stopped and searched on average each year. But that’s what it is, an excuse to pull Stephen House over and raid through his pockets/history/bins – and he needs big pockets on his salary.
Rewind back to 2007 and House has just been appointed Chief Constable of Strathclyde Police. His areas of expertise were broadly guns, gangs and batoning people, having spent the preceding years with the Met in various roles including in the notorious “Territorial Support Group,” a small force responsible for public order, counter terrorism and over 5000 complaints, in the four years between 2005 and 2009. Sir Stevie had left the TSG by 2006, so most of them probably weren’t about him but given there are less than 1000 officers in the unit, there are mathematical probabilities you can figure out for yourself. House moved on to become Commander at the Specialist Crime Directorate, the branch responsible for much of the Met’s most high-profile specialist work, including terrorism, the flying squad, gangs and public order.
The day before he started his new job at Strathclyde Police, he promised to bring this terrorism and public order
policing? to Scotland, declaring, “it is almost certain that there will be a terror incident in the next few years. I would be surprised if there were not further terrorist attacks in Scotland.” Despite no repeat of the Glasgow Airport incident, in which two people crashed a car and set themselves on fire before one of them was kicked in the balls by an off-duty baggage handler, House developed a reputation for bringing the Met’s style of policing to the West of Scotland. He seemed to love electrocuting people and called for the widespread arming of officers with taser guns. Strathclyde piloted a project back in 2010, which saw some officers on the streets of Glasgow & Rutherglen with tasers but this was never rolled out across the force, following condemnation from Amnesty International and Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People, Tam Baillie.
Not content with frying people, it was revealed that some of Strathclyde undercover officers were carrying actual guns for the first time in decades. When homicides went down, it was because Stephen House had reined in Glasgow’s gangs, when they went up, House claimed the smoking ban was responsible. Shoot-em-up Stevie was beginning to find his voice, and his holster.
He was certainly good at cuts, that’s very important when you’re working for a public service which has been relentlessly underfunded for decades. The minority SNP Government’s commitment to increase officer numbers by 1000 across Scotland seemed only to add to the pressures in an already squeezed service. To ensure exactly 1000 more people were wearing the correct kinds of hat, infrastructure had to be sold off, services withdrawn and the number of civilian staff (the ones wearing no/the incorrect type of hats) drastically cut. There are now more than 2000 less civilian police staff across Scotland than there were in 2009, that’s a lot of admin for just 1000 new officers to backfill.
It would be remiss of us not to pause to mention the massive change in “public order” policing in the period between about 2007 and 2011 (i.e. when he was boss at Strathy Polis). The new approach to all marches and protests, except the sectarian ones he made such a point of moaning about of course, was a joint operation between the Polis and our old pals at Glasgow City Council. New rules limiting freedom to march without permission, 28 days in advance, were used as a pretext to crack down on the emerging movement against tuition fees and austerity. Rather than being trusted to get bored and go home, as both the police and demonstrators had done for decades, activists were now routinely arrested and detained, often before demonstrations, with many charged with vague offences relating to alleged things they’d done at a previous demo, which were then quietly dropped down the line. Then there was the absolute farce that was the “eviction” of a student occupation at Glasgow University, which saw dogs, helicopters and dozens of officers engaged in a violent attempt to evict students, who had been living in and running an unused building at the university. By the evening, the University management were begging the students to get back out of the Chancellor’s Office and get back to occupying the building they were in before the huge police operation.
Yet even that couldn’t prepare us for Strathclyde Police’s farewell party. For me personally, there can be no single event which encapsulates what the force had become more than when they turned a sunny day in a Glasgow park into a “riot” before blaming it all on a few political activists. Stephen House’s CV would now include having crushed the Great Kelvingrove Mutiny. And he was ready to be moving on.
And so it was that in 2012, House applied for the head honchos role at the force he loved so much, the Met. When he used a Guardian interview, intended to be about why he should lead the Met, to praise the SNP’s idea for a single Scottish force I couldn’t help but fear he might be working on Plan B. And so it was that he got knocked back by the Met. A sad day for him, a much sadder day for the people of Scotland.
With everyone now wearing the correct hats and despite opposition from the Scottish Police Federation, the SNP ploughed ahead with their plans to merge Scotland’s forces into a single force. There was little doubt who would now be in for the top job. The single Stevie force has existed for just over 2 years and already they’ve been plagued by scandal after scandal.
It’s impossible to deny the service is under constant budgetary pressure. Despite repeated warnings by the Scottish Police Federation that cuts in budgets mean cuts in services, those at the top of both the police and the Government continue to cut. Officer numbers are likely to continue to be a political football, protected at the expense of all else. The “efficiency savings” delivered by the merger include an estimated £60m redudancy payout for the civilian staff who lost their jobs. Control rooms have been slashed, counters closed and just last November, yet more cuts were trailed by House, in order to shave over a billion pounds from the budget by 2026.
Before the force was formed, many expressed concerns that a centralised service would mean the end of local policing and the imposition of the heavy handed methods now used in our cities to forces, who’d managed just fine with a raised eyebrow prior to the merger. If anything, the worry that “Strathclydisation” would occur underestimates how much House had been responsible for the culture at Strathclyde; these weren’t the tried and tested methods of the biggest force being rolled out nationwide, this was a whole new ball game. Speaking of ball games, House was a key player in the process of what would become the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act, in his continued bid to be seen to be doing something/anything by arresting people, while ignoring the array of sectarian events his officers consented to existing every year.
Industrial use of stop and search was now employed throughout the new force, with targets introduced to find drugs and weapons, Edinburgh’s saunas were suddenly being raided and officers in rural areas were seen cutting about with guns. The recent decision by the force to demand the closure of the biggest cultural venues in Glasgow is yet another example of how much Police Scotland seem to bash the door down first and worry about the consequences later. An increasingly unaccountable force, run by an increasingly unaccountable individual, seems determined to prove that “common sense policing by consent” was officially a thing of the past. It was becoming hard to imagine how trust in the force could be eroded any further.
On Sunday 3rd May, a man from Kirkcaldy, Sheku Bayoh, died. His sister told a press conference she was initially told, by Police, that her brother had been found in the street and died in hospital and that they were looking for what they believed to be 2 assailants. It has now been confirmed that Sheku died in police custody, having been detained and placed in hand and leg restraints and it has been widely reported that pepper spray may have been used. None of the police who may have played a role in his death were questioned for over 5 weeks. Had a group of civilians been the last people to see someone before they died, they would have been detained and questioned – most likely under caution – immediately. Those who looked on in horror as events unfolded across the Atlantic should now ask themselves whether black lives matter in Scotland.
Our anti-hero may soon be history, with Stephen House having said he will stand down after his current term, and his supporters now going on the attack about how he’s been undone by the evil meedja. His legacy will not be so easy to unravel. While a massive amount of the responsibility for what’s happened at the force must fall on the shoulders of the man who takes home at least £200k a year, the inconvenient truth is that policing is devolved. If the “Nordic model” is what the pro-indy left aspire to, it’s notable that in an area where the Scottish Government has all the power, we seem to be looking somewhere between the US and the quasi-paramilitary forces on the continent for inspiration.
With no hope of undoing the creation of the single force, the debate must now shift towards a discussion about what kind of policing we actually need and why we’ve seem to be sleepwalking towards a frighteningly authoritarian system. We have a battle on our hands, a battle we cannae leave to the Daily Record or Willie Rennie. That fairer, more just and tolerant Scotland we all wax lyrical about now seems to involve the proliferation of armed officers, stop and search of young kids and allowing our citizens to die in police custody.
We’re sure Sir Stevie will have a long and happy retirement – enjoying some of the many gifts he’s recieved over the years, like lesbian statues which he’s adeptly balanced out by also accepting mangos from well known equal marriage opponents. But whether the man goes now or whether the man goes in 2016 when his term ends, as men go, Sir Stephen House is a wanker.