POLICE Scotland and government officials tried to obstruct the academic research into stop and search that exposed the troubled crime policy.
An investigation has revealed repeated attempts were made to interfere with Kath Murray’s PhD research on the mass use of frisks, including:
- Stephen House’s Police Scotland hindering Murray’s request for statistics and tying release of the data to getting “permission” for its use.
- The Government wanting the removal of unflattering search comparisons with England and Wales.
- Civil servants securing a change in the publication date of Murray’s findings, only for the Government and the single force to stage their own event on the date that had been moved.
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie blasted the “seedy collusion” between the single force and the Government and called for the First Minister to make an “urgent” statement to Parliament.
In 2010, Murray started a PhD on the development of stop and search in Scotland, work co-funded by the Scottish Government and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).
Despite it being a controversial policing tactic, the practice had received little press coverage in Scotland and no academic research had been carried out.
This was in spite of frisking being a flagship anti-crime initiative for Strathclyde Police under chief constable House, who rolled it nationally when he was appointed to lead the single force.
As Murray proceeded, she gathered the information that would lead to House’s policy crumbling.
Not only did the Edinburgh University academic find that search levels had been much higher in Scotland than throughout the UK, but she also discovered that young children had been frisked.
Her PhD was passed last year.
However, the PhD, as well as emails released under freedom of information legislation, reveal the tactics used by the Government and Police Scotland to manipulate and manage her project.
Part of Murray’s research depended on using FOI to obtain basic statistics from Police Scotland on the extent of stop and search, but her PhD made clear that retrieving such information was difficult.
“Access to unrestricted data was problematic,” she wrote. “For example, access to stop and search data requested through the Police Scotland Freedom of Information Unit was hindered.”
In August 2013, internal emails show that Lesley Bain, Police Scotland’s head of analysis and performance, told Murray she could get her the data outwith FOI.
“I’d want to formalise this arrangement in a letter to you and request sight of your research proposal, seek reassurance you are working within the university’s ethics framework and receive a detailed data specification…”
However, the offer came with a big caveat: “One of the conditions we always ask for in return is to allow us to review your research findings and if you wanted to publish, present or communicate these somewhere we ask you to seek our permission first.”
In other words, under the deal Murray would need to seek approval from Police Scotland before publishing statistics from her own PhD. The offer was declined.
However, the academic had already obtained a trove of data about search levels in the legacy forces that made way for Police Scotland.
The findings were damning: people in Scotland were four times more likely to be searched than those living in England and Wales; the vast majority of searches in 2010 were non-statutory; and, in the same year, around 500 children under 10 had been frisked, some on a “consensual” basis.
The Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (SCCJR), based at the University, opted to publish a report of these findings in January 2014.
As a courtesy, embargoed copies were given to the Government, Police Scotland and other stakeholders.
In her PhD, Murray noted the lukewarm response:
“Neither Police Scotland nor the Scottish Government appeared to engage constructively with the findings.”
Internal emails show that the reaction was even less sanguine behind the scenes inside Government headquarters.
“Why have we funded this research – we will need lines on that,” wrote a spin doctor for the then Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill.
According to the PhD, the Government wanted to bury the statistics showing search rates were far higher than in England and Wales:
“A request was made by the Scottish Government to remove this comparison from the SCCJR report press release on the grounds that recording standards were likely to be higher in Scotland.”
Internal Government emails confirm this anxiety.
In January 2014, days before publication of the report, a senior civil servant told Murray he was sceptical about comparing frisk levels across the UK, which obviously reflected badly on Scotland.
“I am afraid that I am still concerned about the methodological robustness of pulling a main conclusion about ‘extent’ of usage,” he wrote.
He argued that Scotland’s figures were high because police officers recorded so much, a distinction he believed could be more relevant than overall usage:
In layman’s language, the Government did not want the research to spotlight the sky-high levels of stop and search in Scotland, with the lower figures in England and Wales.
According to the emails, Murray held firm: “I wouldn’t want to alter part of the story on these grounds,”
The Government failed to change the report’s content, but had more success in manipulating the timing of publication.
The release date was supposed to be January 15th – bang in the middle of the parliamentary week and, dangerously, a day before First Minister’s Questions.
According to the PhD, the Government got this changed:
“Publication of the SCCJR report was originally scheduled for 15 January. However, this was delayed by two days at the request of the Scottish Government.”
After a delay was secured, the civil service and Police Scotland organised their own stop and search event on the same date that Murray and the SCCJR had given up in good faith.
Internal Government emails reveal the administration’s influence behind the scenes.
“Had a further chat with Police Scotland re stop and search,” wrote another spin doctor for MacAskill. “They have now met to discuss this, and are more amenable to doing something proactive ahead of the report being published.”
Another civil servant noted: “I understand the Cab Sec [MacAskill] is keen that SG, Police Scotland and SPA get on the front foot in relation to this research.”
Held in Fife, the event would give MacAskill and Police Scotland a platform to unveil national stop and search figures in a bid to pre-empt damaging findings from a PhD the Government was co-funding.
An audience was told that stop and search had taken 4,273 weapons, including knives, off the streets and was helping “reduce violent crime”.
Months later, the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) would find “no robust evidence” of a causal relationship between the level of frisking and violent crime.
Police Scotland emails, many of which were redacted, also show how keen officers were to have a murder victim’s relative at the press conference.
On January 10th, five days before the event, a senior officer wrote to a colleague: “The task I have been given in relation to this is to contact you regarding the possibility of a knife victim’s family attending the event.”
On the same day, Fife Divisional Commander Gary McEwan wrote: “Parents of a murder victim (from a knife wound) will be contacted over the weekend and support sought.”
A family member was found and stood alongside MacAskill at the event.
Since Murray’s report was published, and her PhD completed, the stop and search policy has become a by-word for crisis.
Her comparisons with England and Wales have regularly been cited by MSPs and non-statutory frisks are expected to be abolished.
Her findings on “consensual” searches of children led to the tactic for under 12s being scrapped, although a major row broke out recently when it emerged that the practice had continued.
After being approached by the Sunday Herald, Murray said:
“Looking back, I was aware of some political spin around the report – albeit not to the extent that has now been exposed. As a junior researcher, it was an uncomfortable situation. It was also slightly baffling, given that the findings were thoroughly researched over a three year period, the report had been independently peer reviewed, and the academic evidence-base on stop and search in Scotland was otherwise non-existent. A year on, the PhD is finished, and stop and search – coupled with the larger issues of police accountability and governance – is squarely in the public spotlight.”
Rennie said: “This seedy collusion to manipulate independent research shows the lengths the leadership of Police Scotland and the SNP government were prepared to go to shore up support for an indefensible policy.
“It calls into question the ethics of the SNP Government and of the police chiefs.
“To lean on researchers in this way undermines Scotland’s fierce tradition of academic independence.
“The First Minister must make an urgent statement to parliament to explain how this was ever allowed to happen. This kind of controlling manipulation has no place in a democratic society.”
Scottish Tory chief whip John Lamont described the revelations as “a serious matter”, adding: “It plunges Police Scotland into even deeper water when it comes to stop and search.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “In line with standard practice, we were invited to provide comments on this research, which the Scottish Government co-funded. Scottish Government analysts therefore provided factual comments on technical methodological issues.”
A Police Scotland spokesman said: “Police Scotland held a media event on January 15th to highlight successful stop search operations in support of keeping people safe.”