Page last updated at 08:39 GMT, Wednesday, 2 April 2008 09:39 UK

'Another officer will be killed'

By Samantha Poling
Investigations Reporter, BBC Scotland

Police in Scotland have raised serious concerns over the number of assaults on officers and the sentences issued to attackers, a BBC Scotland investigation has shown.

Police patrolling Buchanan Street in Glasgow
A poll found that the average fine for attacking an officer was 183

Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary for Scotland figures show there were 13,000 police assaults in Scotland last year but fewer than 3,000 resulted in a conviction.

Norrie Flowers, chairman of the Scottish Police Federation, said: "I don't think the public really realise the extent of the assaults that are taking place on police officers."

During the filming of our investigation - Police Attacks: Officer Down - we spoke to dozens of officers who had been assaulted while working on the streets of Scotland.

Their experiences ranged from being spat at to being confronted and often attacked by weapons, including knives and guns.

Although many officers felt confident in reporting their experiences, their confidence was short-lived as their case entered the justice system.

Two years ago, Shirley Tindal, a police officer working in Dundee, almost lost her life when she responded to a 999 call and was met with a man wielding a knife.

Pathological hatred

He stabbed her in the head but Shirley believed the situation could have been a lot worse.

"If I hadn't ducked away from the knife, it could have penetrated further into the skull and caused more damage, and possibly even a fatal injury," she said.

"I feel really lucky."

But Shirley's trauma didn't stop there.

She said she felt "cheated" by the punishment handed down to her attacker.

She said: "The man was sentenced to a year's imprisonment.

"I assumed he would be serving six months in a prison.

"However, I later found out that he served 17 weeks."

Paul McBride
Mr McBride called for a minimum nine-month sentence for police attackers

One of Scotland's leading lawyers, Paul McBride QC, has defended criminals who on occasion had been involved in serious violence against the police.

He said there should be minimum sentences for those who assault officers.

"We have a minimum sentence now for possession of firearms, I think we should also have it in relation to possession of knives and I think we should also have it in relation to serious assaults of police officers," he said.

"And if a police officer is the subject of a serious assault I think someone should go to prison immediately for a period of a minimum of nine months."

Currently, under the Police Scotland Act, assaulting an officer carries a maximum fine of 5,000.

But an unofficial survey carried out by the Scottish Police Federation found that the average fine imposed under that act was just 183.

But the problem is not just limited to sentencing.

Essentially he got away with it - he knows that and I know that
Pc Dave MacCrimmon

Many end up as negotiated pleas - where an accused will plead guilty to some charges and not others.

The Crown accepts these pleas, saving prosecutors the time and cost of a trial.

Three years ago, Pc Dave MacCrimmon almost died at the hands of a career criminal who had a pathological hatred of the police.

When the case reached the courts it was on the initial charge of attempted murder.

The accused pleaded guilty to a string of driving offences and not guilty to attempted murder.

Mr MacCrimmon said: "To my horror I found out he pled guilty to driving offences.

"He got 24 months for disqualified driving and driving with no insurance. That was it.

"Essentially he got away with it. He knows that and I know that."

Norrie Flowers
Mr Flowers said the issue of plea bargaining was one of their priorities

During the making of the film, we visited Scotland's largest prison, Barlinnie, outside Glasgow, to speak to a man who admitted assaulting police on several occasions.

Prisoner David O'Brien told us the charges were frequently plea-bargained away.

He said: "When it got to the court stage your lawyer would negotiate a plea with the prosecutor.

"If you were guilty of it, they would probably have overwhelming evidence so you would maybe agree with the procurator fiscal to drop maybe the police assault and the breach of the peace in order for you to plead to the breaking and entering charge or whatever."

The Scottish Police Federation represents 99% of Scotland's police officers.

We decided to ask them the extent of the problem of plea bargaining.

They said the issue was one of their top priorities.

Mr Flowers said: "We have taken a number of cases with different fiscal departments and the Crown officer with regards to these incidents that take place ... and we've had meetings with them and they generally try to tell us that 'yes, everything is okay, we don't plea bargain away'.

"But we can't get a categorical answer to show us, because the figures don't add up."

'Treated seriously'

By our own calculations the figures indeed didn't add up, so we asked the Crown Office to offer an explanation.

They declined, and instead issued a statement: "We recognise that police officers place themselves in danger for the protection of the public and deserve the full protection of the law when assaulted.

"That is why assaults on police officers are treated very seriously indeed, as the information and statistics already provided to the BBC makes absolutely clear.

"Each report is carefully considered, and a decision on how to proceed is only ever taken after thorough analysis of all of the available evidence, and the facts and circumstances of the case."

The last police officer murdered on Scotland's streets was 14 years ago, many of the police officers we spoke to believe its just a matter of time before someone else loses their life.

Police Attacks: Officer Down will be shown on BBC One Scotland at 2240 BST on Wednesday 2 April 2008.

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