This week a journalist from Sky News contacted me about my client Steven Smith.
He had read the case report and blog post I wrote about Mr Smith’s case (click on the links to read them) and wanted to speak to my client about his experience. With Steven’s permission I made the introductions, which led to today’s article on the Sky News website. It shows how:
- the police,
- National Police Chiefs Council, and
- the Home Office
all misjudged the public mood at a crucial time.
Serving Police Officer Convicted of Assault
With my help, Steven received compensation after an Avon and Somerset police officer assaulted him. The officer restrained Mr Smith using a chokehold. The chokehold is a controversial method which is banned by many police forces in the USA. As Steven found, it can cause the suspect to lose consciousness. And for some it can be worse. Campaigners are calling for a ban on the use of this potentially deadly restraint method.
The officer in Steven’s case was convicted of “assault by beating” my client. But he kept his job. This, Steven said, left him “gutted and upset”.
“You should be able to go to the police and their judgement should be above board and impeccable at all times,” Mr Smith said.
Freedom of Information Act Request
So it was disappointing to read that:
- “More than 200 serving police officers in the UK have convictions for criminal offences including assault, burglary, drug possession and animal cruelty.” In fact, 211 officers had criminal convictions according to the Sky News report.
- This number is likely to be much higher, as only 16 of the UK’s 45 territorial police forces, British Transport Police, and Ministry of Defence police responded to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for data. More than two thirds of police forces failed to respond, using a variety of excuses, including:
- “a disproportionate and unjustified diversion of policing resources during the coronavirus epidemic”
- the request for information was “vexatious” (frustrating or annoying)
- processing the request was too expensive.
- Serving police officers have criminal convictions for a variety of offences including:
- assault (as in Steven Smith’s case)
- cruelty to animals
- drug possession
- possession of an imitation firearm
Police and Home Office Defensive Comments
Predictably, Chief Constable Craig Guildford, the National Police Chiefs Council’s lead for professional standards, defended his fellow officers, saying that:
“having a criminal record has never been an automatic bar to joining the police or many other public sector professions”.
The Home Office also supported the police, saying that:
“the overall majority of whom carry out their duties with the utmost professionalism and integrity and are committed to keeping the public safe.”
Impact on Public Confidence in the Police
It is fair to assume that, as only one third of police forces responded, the true number of convicted police officers is at least three times higher. And, given the worrying and varied nature of the offences detailed by the forces who responded, this situation is more serious than previously known. By:
- failing to respond to a legitimate FOIA (as two thirds of forces did),
- downplaying the issue, and
- defending police officers right to serve despite criminal convictions,
the UK’s police forces, NPCC, and Home Office have undermined public confidence and trust at a time when they need to improve it. The erosion of public trust matters because the doctrine of “policing by consent” underpins the police’s Code of Ethics. Without it they cannot function.
From a public relations perspective, the police and Home Office’s defensive responses show that they continue to misjudge the public mood. Recent outrage at high-profile incidents including the stop and search of athlete Bianca Williams and the Black Lives Matter protests indicate that the country expects more from its police forces. Failing to take the FOIA request seriously and acknowledge how police officer criminal convictions undermine public confidence is another example of a wider systemic issue. Yet again the police, NPCC, and Home Office have badly missed the mark.
Daniel Fitzsimmons is a Chartered Legal Executive who specialises in civil actions against the police at Donoghue Solicitors.