POLICING should not be drawn into the current “toxic” public debate around hate crime, a chief superintendent has told a landmark conference in Peebles.

The President of the Association of Scottish Police Superintendents, Rob Hay, spoke at the gathering at the town’s Hydro hotel on Tuesday (May 21).

At the association’s centenary conference, Ch Supt Hay outlined that while officers have an important role in policing genuine hate crime, they must not be drawn into the “petty point scoring” currently filling much of the public debate.

And he raised his fears that this current attempt to “weaponise” hate crime is diverting stretched police resources from those who actually need them.

Ch Supt Hay highlighted how Police Scotland is now “woefully under-resourced” – with the lowest officer numbers in 16 years – and how this could affect the significant progress the country has made in curbing violent crime.

He also addressed the Hate Crime legislation which came into force in Scotland on April 1, which created a new crime of “stirring up hatred” relating to protected characteristics such as age, disability, religion, sexual orientation or transgender identity.

He said: “The divisive, political and toxic nature of some of the debate raging in wider society is not a place policing should ever inhabit. The flood of spurious complaints received upon the enactment of the new Hate Crime legislation is an example of the mischief-making we have seen, undertaken with spiteful glee and diverting police resources from those in actual need.

“So let us be pacifists in the culture war, as we have no interest in investigating Humza Yousaf for describing some white people as being white; nor are we interested in arresting JK Rowling, no matter how much she tweets about it.”

Ch Supt Hay reflected on the Scottish Government’s previous promise of 1,000 additional police officers recruited and the difference they made.

This led to an unprecedented targeting of street gangs and a reduction in knife crime.

However he pointed out that since then, the policing workforce had shrunk to pre-2009 levels, according to figures published by the Scottish Government.

Ch Supt Hay said: “The tale of how Scotland ‘beat’ knife crime is usually told through the lens of the Violence Reduction Unit (VRU). Nobody would deny the pioneering nature of the work the VRU undertook and have championed to this day.

“What is often forgotten, however, is 1,000 additional officers recruited into policing in 2007, all of whom went to front-line community policing. What is forgotten is the unprecedented targeting of active street gangs for proactive enforcement that went side-by-side with preventative interventions.

“What is forgotten is that everyone caught in possession of a knife would appear in custody, where bail would be opposed if they had previous convictions for similar offences.

“The success achieved was done so by blending progressive, novel approaches with conventional, visible, proactive policing measures.”

He added: “I reflect today on that progress, in the context of this month Scotland having the lowest police officer numbers in 16 years. The ‘1,000 extra officers’ are long gone. Policing is at the same time pulled in a thousand different directions by demand too often caused by gaps in other services.

“Let’s be clear: no gains we have made are guaranteed. There is no progress that cannot be lost.”