By Kevin Donoghue, solicitor
Recently I wrote about how DCI James Mason effectively handled the investigation into his proven misconduct to avoid getting the sack from his high-profile job in the Metropolitan Police. His tactics included:
- giving written statements only to avoid saying anything incriminating in an oral interview
- denying allegations and contradicting witness evidence
- making representations at a pre-misconduct hearing meeting to help his defence
- producing supportive character references from fellow officers (which are nothing of the sort- usually they are supportive work references describing a model colleague)
- delaying, denying, and defending to drag out the proceedings (so minimising the impact of the event or events in the Misconduct Panel’s view)
- undermining the police’s Code of Ethics, arguing that the event occurred when attitudes were different etc.
In that blog post I gave a warning:
Note of Caution
- investigating officers in police Force Professional Standards Departments,
- Police Misconduct Disciplinary Panels
- the media and the public
to be on the lookout for the tactics described above.
And, for the police officers reading this blog post, be aware that the techniques I describe above are well-known. Disciplinary panels, investigating officers, solicitors, and victims of police misconduct take a dim view of them.
A recent case shows that the Metropolitan Police’s DCI James Mason is not alone. Other officers are using similar tactics to avoid the sanctions their police misconduct deserves.
How a Sussex Police Officer Abused His Position
In this report, the Independent Office for Police Conduct describes how, in 2018, a Sussex Police officer improperly accessed police computer systems to get information on a woman he met while investigating a theft she reported in 2017.
The IOPC investigation began in May 2020 following a referral from Sussex Police itself.
The IOPC investigated allegations that the serving police officer “had formed an inappropriate relationship with a woman and failed to declare it to his superiors.” But it noted that, after a misconduct hearing, “This allegation was not proven.”
Nevertheless, four of the five allegations against the officer were proven, including that:
“on a number of occasions he used police computer systems to view reports relating to that member of the public, her family and ex-husband without a policing purpose.”
The Panel found this:
“amounted to misconduct and a breach of the standards of professional behaviour in respect of confidentiality.”
Sussex Police’s website write-up confirms the IOPC report and gives more details, including that the officer was male and that his two-day misconduct hearing concluded on 22 February 2022.
IOPC Regional Director Graham Beesley said that:
“This officer breached Sussex Police policy by accessing its computer systems for a non-policing purpose.
Actions like this undermine the public’s trust in police officers who should know that it is entirely inappropriate to use police computer systems for personal reasons.”
And Sussex Police’s Deputy Chief Constable Julia Chapman said:
“We expect our officers to act with the upmost integrity, and in accordance with the Code of Ethics and the Standards of Professional Behaviour. The actions of the officer fell far short of these which is reflected in the findings by the panel.”
What was the officer’s punishment for this serious, proven police misconduct?
Instant dismissal? Sadly not. Instead, the officer was given a written warning by Sussex Police’s Misconduct Panel. As a result, PC A, as he was known in the misconduct proceedings, still serves in Sussex Police and is free to continue abusing his considerable powers.
It is possible that the officer may be chastened by this. Equally, it is likely that he will not. Why? Because PC A found ways to manipulate the police misconduct disciplinary system to his benefit.
How this Sussex Police officer gamed the misconduct system
During its investigation, the IOPC examined data from sources including the officers’ work and personal phones, police radio and work email account. Two witnesses were also interviewed.
This kind of research is not unusual, and echoes DCI Mason’s case where emails and witness evidence were helpful in proving his misconduct.
But, two things are important to note about the investigation and hearing process in this case:
- the officer “declined to provide an account for the IOPC investigation or to comment when interviewed under caution.”
- he was granted anonymity.
The effect of these things is that the still-serving Sussex Police officer:
- avoided publicity. As I explained here, being publicly named-and-shamed can be the most effective consequence of police misconduct when Disciplinary Panels allow officers to keep their jobs
- was given a helpful break by the Panel, which did not sanction PC A for failing to co-operate with the investigation.
How the Police Conduct Regulations Help Police Officers Avoid Accountability
As I previously wrote here, the Police Conduct Regulations (2020) allow officers and their employer police forces to set conditions before full Disciplinary Hearings. Often, these terms benefit the accused officer, including:
- what evidence is admitted
- how the misconduct hearing takes place
- which witnesses are called
- who is allowed to attend
- how the results are publicised.
The Regulations give broad latitude to the Panel Chair. In particular, they can decide how to handle publicity relying on the reasons set out in section.39, which include:
(7) This paragraph applies to information in so far as the person conducting or chairing the misconduct proceedings considers that preventing disclosure of it to an attendee is—
(a)necessary for the purpose of preventing the premature or inappropriate disclosure of information that is relevant to, or may be used in, any criminal proceedings;
(b)necessary in the interests of national security;
(c)necessary for the purpose of the prevention or detection of crime, or the apprehension or prosecution of offenders;
(d)necessary for the purpose of the prevention or detection of misconduct by other police officers or police staff members or their apprehension for such matters;
(e)necessary and proportionate for the protection of the welfare and safety of any informant or witness;
(f)otherwise in the public interest.
It is up to the Misconduct Panel’s Chair to decide if a request for anonymity is appropriate. Given how vague some of the reasons listed above are, it is not surprising that Panels frequently grant anonymity. Evidently, in this case, they agreed with whatever argument the police officer (and/or their representatives, or Sussex Police themselves) put forward.
Who Sought Anonymity in This Case?
It is possible that Sussex Police’s own higher-ups were responsible for the decision to seek anonymity for the officer. Sussex Police’s website write-up does not say. Instead the report uses the passive voice to avoid accountability:
PC A, who was granted anonymity for the hearing by an independent Legally Qualified Chair, was the subject of a two-day misconduct hearing, at Sussex Police Headquarters, Lewes, which concluded on Tuesday (22 February).
If the Force itself sought anonymity, then the Panel’s decision to allow it makes a mockery of the principle of open justice and undermines trust in Sussex Police, at a time when confidence in the police is low.
But it is more likely that the officer himself sought anonymity. After all, he had the most to lose by being publicly named-and-shamed. And, from the IOPC’s thorough investigation, PC A must have known that some misconduct was likely to be proven, even without his co-operation and “no comment” interview. (Four out of the five allegations were made out after all.)
The consequences of this officer’s approach to his misconduct hearing are grave. Just like with DCI Mason, he has given other police officers accused of serious misconduct a road map for avoiding accountability. Delay, deny, and avoid giving evidence which may incriminate you, then use the system to stay anonymous. The result? A slap on the wrist.
Is it any wonder that the IOPC “tagged” this news item with two terms which, in this case, go together like (Carabao Cup Winning Liverpool goalkeeper) Caoimhin Kelleher and penalty shoot-outs? The tags, which can be used by the IOPC’s website users to find similar stories, are:
“Corruption and Abuse of Power”
Kevin Donoghue is the solicitor director of Donoghue Solicitors. Among other civil actions against the police, he represents people in police abuse of authority for sexual gain compensation claims.