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Police powers defended as union warns of 'political interference'

Union chief writes open letter to MSPs expressing his concern about recent political discussions.

Police interviewing young people.
© STV

The Scottish Police Federation (SPF) has defended the controversial policy of consensual stop-and-search, warning against "political interference" in policing.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told MSPs last week that Police Scotland chief constable Sir Stephen House was considering ending the practice of non-statutory searches.

The announcement came after it emerged that the tactic was still being used on children under the age of 12 despite Assistant Chief Constable Wayne Mawson telling a Holyrood committee in June it was "indefensible" and would be scrapped.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats have said they will bring forward legislation to make the practice illegal.

Calum Steele, general secretary of the SPF, which represents 98% of all police officers, has now written an open letter to MSPs expressing his concern about recent developments.

Mr Steele wrote: "The events of the past week have resulted in a frightening narrative that politicians believe that they are in a position and indeed have a role to play in determining how and when police officers exercise their right to stop and search someone.

"It is also alarming to read and hear reports that politicians consider that they are in a position to reach an agreement with or direct the Chief Constable of the day as to how and when such powers will be used.

"The authority of police officers to stop and search any citizen does not arise from the dictate of politicians nor from some non-existent power of the Chief Constable but comes from the law of the land both at common law and statute."

Mr Steele said it was "understandable and entirely correct" for politicians to question the use of the tactic on children, but added: "It is however an absolute reality that many children in our society are out and about in our communities without the slightest knowledge of their parents or guardians.

"Many smoke from their pre-teen years, many more drink and yes occasionally some also carry weapons and drugs.

"No amount of wishing it wasn't so changes the fact that it is so and no amount of hand-wringing changes the fact that police officers have to deal with thousands of calls every year involving pre teenage youngsters.

"There may be no general statutory power to search at such calls but there is also no general statutory power to require a name, address or age. Perhaps the police should just do nothing and advise callers that "we have no statutory powers" and simply hope these youngsters come to, or cause no harm."

Mr Steele said it was important for the public to know that police officers used stop-and-search "in the public interest in an effort to combat crime and to keep the public safe".

He added: "This is best done by training police officers how to exercise their powers and engage with the public in the interests of everyone rather than by political dictate or suggestion to Chief Constables that they have the power to overrule a well-developed system of law.

"There are undoubtedly lessons to be learnt from the recent history of stop and search within the Police Service of Scotland. These lessons however need to extend beyond the service itself and many parents and guardians need to take a greater responsibility for the actions of their children.

"The greatest lesson of all however must stem from the historic warnings that a single police service in Scotland could become subject to political interference.

"How quickly these concerns appear to have faded from the memories of those who now seek to exert what they so prophetically warned against."

Police Scotland figures show that between March 2013 and April 2014, there were 640,699 stop-and-searches, of which 449,095 of these were consensual.

Of the consensual searches, 15.6% were positive, while of the 191,604 statutory searches, 29.9% were positive.

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