By Kevin Donoghue, Solicitor
A report in the Sheffield Telegraph got me thinking about police misconduct in road traffic accidents involving the police.
It said that in the three years to March 2011, South Yorkshire Police cars were involved in more than 1,152 road traffic accidents. These road accidents injured 214 people, who received almost £750,000 compensation from the Force. South Yorkshire Police used 750 vehicles at that time, which also had to be repaired or replaced at public expense following road traffic accidents, making the true cost to the taxpayer far higher.
Remarkably, despite the high number of car crashes, only four police officers were disciplined for police misconduct for motoring offences in the accidents, with two more investigations under way.
So, according to South Yorkshire Police, only 0.3% of all the reported road traffic accidents involving their officers resulted in disciplinary action.
‘So what?’ you may ask.
The answer: the effect on public trust in dealing with police misconduct.
Police Misconduct in Complaints Proceedings
Last year I blogged about South Yorkshire Police and wondered at the time if their claims that they have changed since Hillsborough were true.
(You can read my blog post here.)
In that piece I reported on the lengths South Yorkshire Police allegedly went to to cover up wrongdoing in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster. According the Hillsborough Investigation Panel, the Force:
- changed 164 junior police officers’ statements;
- deliberately misinforming the media; and
- fabricated a defence.
This was police misconduct on a massive, institutional scale.
In my blog post I explained that fabricating evidence is still an issue within the police and referred to one of my clients, Mr. D, who had been assaulted with CS gas by a Special Constable with another police force. The Special Constable gave a statement saying that my client head butted him to justify the use of this (potentially deadly) force.
The officer made his statement just half an hour after the alleged assault when events would have been fresh in his mind.
Mr. D was arrested on the basis of the Special Constable’s word alone, and was to be prosecuted for the serious crime of assaulting a police officer.
Thankfully, the Special Constable’s story unravelled when CCTV footage was found which showed that my client did not assault him. As a result, the prosecution against Mr. D did not go ahead and he instructed me to make a compensation claim against the police.
He made a formal complaint against the police which was conducted internally and supervised by a senior officer.
Rather than apologise and admit the police misconduct in providing a misleading statement, the Special Constable changed his story to say that the assault occurred off-camera.
This was also untrue but my client’s police complaint was still rejected.
So far as I am aware, no further action was taken against the Special Constable despite giving false statements which amounted to police misconduct. Instead, he was given ‘management advice’ about writing statements in future.
Police Misconduct covered up
I often represent clients with similar stories in their claims against the police.
Innocent people are prosecuted because of false or misleading testimony from police officers who are held in a position of public trust. All too often the police’s version of events is accepted without question.
This can lead to serious miscarriages of justice where innocent people are wrongly convicted.
But if my clients are lucky enough to avoid criminal convictions and then make complaints against the police about police misconduct, the police complaints procedure kicks in.
In recent years the procedure has changed so that, in all but the most serious of cases, police complaints are dealt with internally.
This means that an investigation into police misconduct by a potentially rogue officer is supervised by a senior police officer within the same police force.
In theory the senior police officer is impartial but the person making the complaint cannot be sure. Even if the senior officer is independent, what assurance can he or she give that they are not biased towards their own colleague?
Also, the evidence of the officer under investigation is taken into account, even if, like in my client’s case above, it can be shown to be inaccurate.
All this means that, in my experience, police complaints are only upheld in the most clear cut cases of police misconduct.
Police Misconduct in Road Traffic Accidents
Where police misconduct is shown, disciplinary proceedings against the officer(s) involved can result in various penalties, ranging from training or ‘management advice’ to dismissal from the force.
In road traffic accidents, the procedure is similar, but it involves an even closer personal connection with the police officers involved.
Here the system means that the police do not need to pretend that the investigating senior officer is impartial.
As Police Federation chairman Neil Bowles explained to The Telegraph: “All police road traffic collisions are treated very seriously, let alone if some cause casualties, and all are investigated by a supervisory officer.’ (my emphasis)
So, when investigations into police misconduct in road accidents are conducted by close colleagues, and the bar is set so high for police complaints and disciplinary proceedings, is it any wonder that less than half a percent of all the road traffic accidents reported by South Yorkshire Police resulted in disciplinary action against the police officers involved?
David Crompton, the Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police, insisted in this BBC interview that his Force ‘was a very different place in 2012’ from the Hillsborough-era.
Can we really believe him?
Does he think that the present system of investigating police misconduct in road traffic accidents maintains public confidence in the police?
Until a more transparent way of investigating police misconduct is introduced, I don’t.
Kevin Donoghue is the Solicitor Director of Donoghue Solicitors, a niche law firm representing clients in their civil actions against the police and personal injury accident claims. Contact him for help with your police misconduct claim on 0151 933 1474 or go to the website: www.donoghue-solicitors.co.uk.
Image (cropped to fit): cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo by infliv: http://flickr.com/photos/26616529@N03/3871157689/