IN a stinging rebuke to Scotland’s top police officer, one of the country’s most senior sheriffs has said there is “ample evidence” to suggest that a cover-up of a serving police officer to protect another may not have been a one-off.

The revelation came after Chief Constable Sir Stephen House took the unprecedented step of criticising a sheriff for making “unsubstantiated comments” at the trial of a Police Scotland officer last year.

In December, Sheriff Robert H Dickson jailed PC David Carmichael for seven months after he was convicted of lying to protect a colleague who was drunk driving. In his sentencing the sheriff warned the evidence in front of him “suggests that there may be a perceived culture that police officers are willing to prevent the arrest and prosecution of a colleague.

“If that culture exists, then every superior officer and anybody involved in the training of the police must ensure that it is stamped out forthwith.”

A series of increasingly aggressive and forthright letters obtained by The National lay bare the fractious relationship between Scotland’s top police officer and the judiciary in the weeks after the sentencing.

An incensed House demanded a meeting to discuss the case with Sheriff Dickson’s boss, Sheriff principal Brian Lockhart, but was rebuffed. The Sheriff Principal also damningly accuses Sir Stephen of failing to “recognise the role of the judiciary”.

In his first letter House criticises Dickson for raising concerns about Police Scotland’s integrity in public and says he should have raised them directly with the police or through the Sheriff Principal. But the Principal says: “Sheriff Dickson was entitled to draw from the facts before him that this cover-up may not have been a one-off incident”. He adds that there is “ample evidence” to support the sheriff’s claims: “These were carefully phrased expressions of concern, justified by the evidence in the case before him.”

The sheriff says Dickson had every right to make the remarks, in order that “public confidence in the judicial system is not further damaged. To suggest otherwise fails to recognise the role of the judiciary”.

He continues: “The integrity of the police force is not merely a matter of concern to senior police officers but to us all.”

Professor James Chalmers, Regius Professor of Law at the University of Glasgow said there was “absolutely no justification” for Sir Stephen to attack “the messenger”.

Chalmers said: “It may only be a problem of perception, but that’s still a real problem which he has a responsibility to do something about. The problem seems to be one of perception within the force rather than more generally, so there’s no room for the argument that the sheriff was making the problem worse by speaking out publicly.

“On the plus side, it’s good to see the independence of the judiciary defended so robustly, which is particularly important now that we have a single police force”.

Former policeman and Scottish Parliament Justice committee member John Finnie MSP defended Sir Stephen: “It is important there is a frank exchange of views. The independence of the judiciary must be guarded in any liberal democracy. I well understand the chief constable’s spirited defence, because the overwhelming majority of police officers act with integrity. In this case the standards were dropped and I don’t think the chief’s comments were at all unreasonable.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Alison McInnes MSP said House was more interested in PR than cleaning up the force: “These are revealing exchanges in which the chief constable seems more focussed on managing the reputation of his organisation instead of on learning the lessons from this worrying incident. I hope this is not the case. The judiciary has a distinct and clear role to play in our democracy. The chief constable may not like what the sheriff had to say, but that does not mean he has the right to ignore these warnings.”

A spokesperson for the Judicial Office for Scotland would only say there had been no further correspondence.

A spokesperson for Police Scotland said: “The correspondence clearly sets out the chief constable’s rejection of the claim that such practice may have been widespread and his personal condemnation of any officer who wilfully neglects their duty and that all members of Police Scotland are expected to maintain the organisation’s highest professional standards. It also clearly sets out the respect for the independent role of the judiciary but does express concern that the original comments by Sheriff Dickson could have been misconstrued”.

THE CASE: ‘A total cover-up to protect a fellow police officer’

IN October 2010, PC David Carmichael and fellow officer, probationer PC Justyna Niedzwiecka responded to a call about a drunk driver in Coatbridge. When the PCs arrived at a house in the town’s Calderview Avenue, Carmichael recognised the driver as PC Daryl McKillion. Instead of breathalysing the clearly inebriated man, Carmichael radioed in to control to say that nobody had answered the door. When Niedzwiecka challenged her partner, he said: “You don’t want to grass on another cop or you have no future in the police.” Found guilty in December last year, Carmichael was given a custodial sentence of seven months. Sentencing him, Sheriff Robert H Dickson said:“I come to the opinion this was a total cover-up to protect a fellow police officer. It gives me no pleasure whatsoever to find a serving police officer guilty of wilful neglect of duty. You told your less-experienced colleague that you didn’t want to grass up a fellow cop. This was an attempt to prevent action against an officer suspected of having driven under the influence of alcohol. You called force control and told them there had been no answer at the house, which was a lie, and as we heard in evidence, this brought proper enquiries to an end. “I have listened very carefully to everything that has been said on your behalf and the letters before me which clearly indicate you are held in high regard by a number of people. We trust police officers to be honest and fair. You breached that trust and deliberately lied. This is unacceptable. “I have considered the social enquiry report very carefully and taken a long time to consider its terms. I cannot find any other way to dispose of this other than by a custodial sentence.” The call about McKillion had come from an off-duty detective who had seen the PC buy a bottle of whisky and get into a car. When making the call, DC Janice Scott had refused to give her name. McKillion, who was suffering from severe depression, took his life three weeks later. Carmichael, in evidence, said: “It was a silly mistake and I wish it had never taken place. I made the wrong decision.”

How we tracked the story down

IT took The National four months to see the exchange of correspondence between Sir Stephen House and Sheriff Principal Brian Lockhart. We contacted both bodies after a tip-off that questions were asked of the judiciary and police press offices. The judiciary would only confirm there had been correspondence. Freedom of Information requests were sent to both bodies on February 24. Three times after the 20 working day time limit to respond to an FOI request was up, Police Scotland asked for more time. On April 14, The National asked Police Scotland for a review of the process. On May 19, Police Scotland asked for more time. At that time, The National asked the Scottish Information Commissioner to investigate. The Commissioner found in our favour and, last Friday, Police Scotland released the correspondence to us.