By Daniel Fitzsimmons, Chartered Legal Executive at Donoghue Solicitors
I recently settled a claim against Avon & Somerset Police for Steven Smith. Mr Smith (details used with his kind permission) was assaulted by PC F, a police officer in Bristol. The police officer received a criminal conviction for “assault by beating”. Recently we found out that the officer was still serving. Should he be?
Why Did PC F Get a Criminal Conviction?
Briefly, two female police officers, PC P and PC S, escorted Mr Smith out of a pub and ordered him to leave Bristol town centre. A third (male) officer, PC F, joined them outside. Steven refused to leave, and PC P told him he was under arrest. While PC P and PC S were attempting to handcuff Mr Smith, PC F grabbed Steven around the neck from behind using his right arm. A witness described it as a “choke hold where the person’s neck is within the V bend section of the arm”.
Choke holds restrict blood and/ or air flow to the brain. They can cause serious injury and even death. For this reason, they are banned by many police forces. PC F kept Steven Smith in a choke hold for about 15 seconds. During this time Steven momentarily lost consciousness and his legs buckled beneath him. The officers helped him to his feet and drove Mr Smith to a nearby police station to be processed.
At the station the female officers reported their concerns about PC F’s conduct to a custody sergeant. Following an investigation, PC F was prosecuted for the criminal offence of assault by beating.
Two courts found him guilty:
- Bath Magistrates’ Court convicted him for assaulting Steven Smith. The officer was fined £100, and ordered to pay a £20 victim surcharge, and £220 costs.
- PC F appealed to Bristol Crown Court, where the Court upheld his criminal conviction. The Crown Court judge said that “the force for that 15 second period was disproportionate in all the circumstances and therefore unreasonable.”
My client (it turns out wrongly) thought that the criminal conviction meant that PC F would also be dismissed from the police.
His view was not unreasonable. After all, the police are meant to uphold the law, not break it. And, for a “bobby on the beat”, a conviction for assaulting a member of the public in the course of his employment has added significance. Police officers like PC F routinely use force to arrest people. The burden on them to make sure arrests are effected lawfully, safely, and using appropriate techniques, is high.
Failing to do so can render their conduct unlawful. As Mr Smith’s case shows, this can result in criminal convictions, costly criminal and civil penalties, and reputational damage for the officer and their Police Force. PC F now has a criminal record and was ordered to pay £340 by the Magistrates. His criminal misconduct cost the public too. The taxpayer-funded Avon & Somerset Police rightly paid £4,500 plus legal costs to Mr Smith by way of compensation because it was responsible for the unlawful acts of its officer.
And yet PC F still serves in Avon & Somerset Police.
Mr Smith does not know if, or how, Avon & Somerset Police’s internal misconduct proceedings were concluded. (Steven was not a party to them, so was not told.) But PC F continues to serve in Avon & Somerset Police despite his criminal conviction.
My colleague Kevin Donoghue has previously written about how the police misconduct system works. You can read his analysis of the guidance and how it applied to one of his client’s cases here.
Police misconduct is
‘unacceptable or improper behaviour and for police officers will involve a breach of the Standards of Professional Behaviour set out in Schedule 2 to the Conduct Regulations.’
Gross misconduct, which can result in dismissal from the police, is
‘a breach of the Standards of Professional Behaviour which is so serious that dismissal would be justified.’
Interestingly, the primary purpose of police misconduct proceedings is not to punish police officers. Instead, they are meant to maintain public confidence. In R (Green) v Police Complaints Authority, Lord Carswell said:
‘Public confidence in the police is a factor of great importance in the maintenance of law and order in the manner which we regard as appropriate in our polity. If citizens feel that improper behaviour on the part of police officers is left unchecked and they are not held accountable for it in a suitable manner, that confidence will be eroded.’
In PC F’s case, it is likely that the panel tasked with considering his misconduct would have looked at the seriousness of the misconduct, the purpose of imposing sanctions, and then chosen an appropriate sanction, if any.
The panel would have looked at the officer’s responsibility for the misconduct, the harm caused, and the existence of aggravating or mitigating factors.
The criminal proceedings will have helped because two criminal courts found that PC F was responsible for assault by beating on a member of the public. He had no one to blame but himself.
A conviction for assault, which undermines public confidence in policing, would have suggested a more serious sanction, such as dismissal for gross misconduct. Relevant aggravating factors to support this include PC F abusing his powers, using gratuitous violence, and the vulnerability of his victim.
But it is likely that PC F presented arguments in mitigation. The police misconduct panel would probably have been asked to read the comments of the Crown Court judge, who described the assault as “a momentary and isolated mistake”. The judge felt that PC F “would still be an asset to the Avon and Somerset Constabulary” despite upholding the lower court’s criminal conviction for assault.
It appears the disciplinary panel was persuaded, as PC F is still serving in the police.
Impact on Public Confidence
After the incident Mr Smith worried that he would be subject to police retribution. Knowing that PC F is still serving in his town heightens that fear. Steven doesn’t want to come across his assailant again. For the wider public, it may come as a surprise to learn that the police misconduct system is focused on maintaining public confidence rather than punishment. This means that serving police officers can keep their jobs despite criminal convictions. Does that inspire confidence in you?