Photo of Kevin Donoghue, solicitor, asks if police complaints will be taken seriously with Theresa May as Prime Minister.
Kevin Donoghue, solicitor, asks if police complaints will be taken seriously with Theresa May as Prime Minister.

By Kevin Donoghue, Solicitor

Today, after an unprecedented few weeks in politics, Home Secretary Theresa May becomes Prime Minister. Her public criticism of the police, especially in a scathing speech to the Police Federation in 2014 in which she said some officers displayed “contempt for the public”, raised hopes that this would lead to a cultural change in policing. Sadly, it didn’t work, so now Mrs May’s Policing and Crime Bill is proceeding through Parliament to try to force change. In particular, our politicians will debate the police complaints system as follows:

Police complaints and inspection

Part 2 of the Bill would implement many of the proposals in the Government’s Improving Police Integrity consultation. It would reform the system of police complaints in the following ways:

  • A major role for Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) in the handling of police complaints
  • Changes to the handling of complaints aimed at making the system easier to follow and more transparent
  • Changes to the role and powers of the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) to reinforce its independence from police forces
  • The introduction of ‘super-complaints’ to allow certain advocacy groups and charities to raise concerns over troubling systemic issues in policing.

But will this legislation be enough to change the police’s attitude to complaints? Here’s my view.

One Client’s Experience of the Police Complaints Process

From The Sunday Post: A Northumbria Police spokesman said a full investigation had been carried out into claims of excessive force and unlawful arrest. That probe cleared the officers of any wrongdoing.

Gary Wilson, interviewed on BBC Radio 4: They basically said I was a liar, you know.

My client, Gary Wilson (details used with permission), was featured in a Radio 4 report “Police Complaints: A Fair Cop?” (listen to it by clicking on the link). In the interview he explained how Northumbria Police mistreated him.

Gary was trying to help the police coax his cousin off a roof when officers decided to arrest him for a bogus breach of the police. They assaulted, unlawfully arrested, and falsely imprisoned him for two days, before he was released at the Magistrates’ Court. He missed his son’s second birthday and was upset at his treatment, so made a formal complaint.

As usual for this kind of matter, the complaint was dealt with by Northumbria Police themselves (read our page on complaints against the police to find out why).

Unsurprisingly, Northumbria Police’s investigators sided with their own officers. Gary contacted me for advice because the police refused to apologise. I specialise in actions against the police and helped him win £7500 plus full legal costs. (Read how here.) Despite this settlement, he still feels aggrieved. As he pointed out in the interview, “I’m still waiting for that apology today.”

Fundamental Problems

It seems that, for the police, sorry is the hardest word. This is explained in the rest of the Radio 4 report which addresses many issues, including:

  • Just 1 in 10 of the 35,000 police complaints are upheld (on the latest figures when the report was filed)
  • Professor Steve Savage of Portsmouth University thinks that the police complaints system is different to consumer complaints handling because it is rooted in the police disciplinary process so “that there’s still an ethos that what the complaints investigation is about is determining blame” and “the concern is, is there evidence that this officer can be potentially responsible for misconduct?”. This different (and high) standard means that even legitimate complaints against the police are dismissed.
  • The Policing and Crime Bill proposes an overhaul of the police complaints system by putting investigations in the hands of Police and Crime Commissioners. One Commissioner said this will not work without giving them sufficient powers and resources to investigate, secure evidence, interview officers etc. (powers which the police’s Professional Standards Department (“PSD”) investigators presently have).
  • The Independent Police Complaints Commission (“IPCC”) uphold nearly half of all complaints when people challenge the PSD’s findings. These aren’t just to make complainants feel better. Dame Anne Owers, Chair of the IPCC explained that “we rarely uphold complaints just on technicalities”.
  • Dame Owers bemoaned the current system which requires the IPCC to refer complaints back to the same police force for re-assessment when it upholds an appeal. She said: “sometimes they get it wrong in the second place as well. And at the moment the system can produce a kind of roundabout where it’s just going backwards and forwards.”
  • She also complained that when the IPCC compels a police force to hold a misconduct hearing against one of their own officers, the force itself presents the case. The conflict of interest is obvious, and she says “That problem will only be resolved if we ourselves can present our own case.”
  • The police, represented in the Radio 4 report by Deputy Chief Constable Alan Goodwin (National Police Lead for complaints and misconduct), agreed that “in an ideal world” the police would not investigate complaints against their own staff.
  • But on other matters he was less forthcoming. For example, the DCC didn’t “want to get into a technical discussion about what an appeal actually constitutes”, when he could have simply referred the reporter to the Appeals section of Schedule 14 of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011).
Photo of Theresa May, Prime Minister.
Theresa May, Prime Minister.

Police Culture

In February 2015 I wrote about the broken police complaints system in my blog post Five Ways to Cut Police Complaints. I was struck by the statistic that “you have a reasonable 1 in 2 chance of a successful appeal to the IPCC, but a pathetic 1 in 5 chance with a Chief Officer.” DCC Goodwin said in the Radio 4 report that this “can simply be a difference of opinion”. Maybe in some cases; but surely not all?

His comments in the radio programme fit with my earlier observation that senior police officers seem to focus on the cause of police complaints (the system) and not the symptom (poor policing standards and outdated attitudes). In effect, they try to deflect attention from their own failings, for example, blaming “an overly cautious approach to recording police complaints” and the non-existent “compensation culture”.

The police’s attitude to complaints is an ongoing cultural and systemic problem which successive governments have failed to manage, despite legislation. A year and a half after writing the “Five Ways” post I have seen no evidence of change. I hope to be proven wrong, but doubt the influence of the Policing and Crime Bill or the new Prime Minister will change police culture to improve the way they deal with complaints.

 

 

Read our page about making complaints against the police for more information, or contact us via the online form on this page.

 

Image credit: Home Office

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