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'Positive impact' made after frontline officers taken off duty to man struggling custody centres

More than 60 officers have been transferred to custody duties amid staff shortages

Removing officers from frontline duties to fill the gaps of a struggling custody sector has had “no adverse effects” according to Police Scotland.

A decline in the number of police staff employed as Police Custody and Security Officers (PCSOs) has resulted in officers having to cover -  known as “backfill” - in custody areas.

Sixty-two frontline officers are currently standing in for PCSOs, however, Assistant Chief Constable Wayne Mawson originally stated around 100 officers would be needed in order to keep up with demand.

A recruitment drive is currently underway to plug the gap with 45 Criminal Justice PCSOs by July this year, with 17 already in place.

When asked by MSP Margaret Mitchell at a Scottish Parliament committee meeting what impact backfilling has had on frontline services, Chief Superintendent Garry McEwan replied there has been a “positive impact” and “significant benefits” to the system in place.

He describes the process is now "more organised" and there are less officers being taken from frontline duties.

“Previously they were taken out in ad hoc basis and there were more of them taken out. There are 62 now, whereas three or four years ago you’re talking about well into the hundreds coming in backfilling. It’s certainly a lot better.”

Scottish Police Federation General Secretary Calum Steele agreed with the findings and said circumstances are now “counter-intuitively better.”

“It is better we have the resilience put into custody rather than face the considerable delays that we are experiencing by coming up against a very under resourced custody area.

“Counter-intuitively the removal of 62 officers to support the custody element of it has provided an improvement of the service that is experienced by officers as they get to custody.

“Of course, self-evidently the other side of the coin is that there are less people out there to deliver a policing service.”

He added custody officers were not experiencing issues of the same magnitude before backfillers were introduced.

The custody-covering officers are expected to be released back on to the frontline in November.

Newly recruited PCSOs will undergo a three week training course covering case management, PNC and Central Communications Command.

But concerns have been raised over the safety of PCSOs working solo by UNISON.

Lucille Inglis, Chairman of the Police Staffs Scotland Branch, Unison Scotland, said it is “good they have risk assessments”, but cannot predict events.

“You start off in custody and it could be quiet, and we can work with one PCSO, but it  just needs someone to go off on one. It’s a high-risk area. We need to see more than one person working alone, it’s not good practice.”

Concerns were also reiterated on the Criminal Justice Act, which has increased bureaucratic burden, offsetting the reduction in numbers being brought in, and increasing delays at custody suites, according to Mr Steele.

He said: “The Criminal Justice Act has resulted in a reduction of the number of people coming into custody.

“There are legitimate reasons for that; that we no longer need to take someone into custody, there are certainly a significant number of my members who feel it is a bureaucratic nightmare trying to take someone into custody.

“That creates an impediment in its own right to stop people getting in and of course there’s the question of how long it takes for them to get back onto the street after they have been transferred to a custody facility.”

Mr Steele explains the issue of delays is multi-faceted with transfer times not being the sole factor, but the time it takes to process offenders once they reach a custody centre with added administrative burden.

SPF warned of the pressures prior to the new act being introduced however, he said they have fallen on deaf ears.

In some areas, officers are being discouraged in bringing detainees into custody, in one example officers are being told not to bring offenders into custody even though they are carrying an offensive weapon, according to Mr Steele.

Mr Steele has made the suggestion for justice committee members to meet custody officers to hear their accounts first hand.

“I am telling you as honestly as I can that they are remarkably frustrated by how custody is performing as a function, not at the delivery of the service by those who are working very hard within it,” Mr Steele added.