When reputation management trumps safeguarding risk

If a citizen commits a crime then they can expect to face the full force of the law and an appropriately scaled punshment. Either by penalty notice at one end of the scale, or a lengthy prison sentence at the other. That is one of the foundation stones of a free, democratic society.

We are told, often, that police officers are citizens in uniform. But the reality is, they largely face a different set of rules, if they are found to break the law. Processing through the criminal justice system is seen, in many cases, by their force, as a last resort. Particularly, if the case is likely to cause harm to the reputation of the police service and there is an available compromise.

That may involve a ‘plea bargain‘ that amounts to a miscreant officer resigning from the force and no criminal charge. That, it must be said, saves money on misconduct and criminal proceedings – and also avoids the police’s dirty washing being aired in public.

Another exit route is the ‘not in the public interest‘ argument that forms part of the Crown Prosecution Service‘s Full Code Test [1]. The evidence may be there, but for reasons of proportionality, for example, the matter doesn’t proceed to court.

Other factors include the Police Federation’s input and the, mainly, benign approach of the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) towards police wrongdoing.

The Fed are, of course, the police officer’s ‘union’ for all ranks up to chief inspector – and provide pastoral support, legal advice and, more crucially, funding for the latter. They are, beyond doubt, a powerful and very wealthy organisation (in West Yorkshire alone Fed has over £2 million in reserves). Their default position is that police forces (by definition, as appropriate authority, chief constables) should deal with miscreant officers ‘in-house’ and the Fed should be free to cut deals (or the ‘plea bargains’) with chief officers that suit them and their members – and, more likely than not, the force.

However cosy, and pragmatic, this arrangement may seem, the public, and in some cases, the press, are very often left perplexed by the system – and the unavoidable perception that a police officer has ‘got away with it‘. More crucially, victims in these cases can be left isolated, humiliated and with their confidence in the police shredded.

One small consolation is that police officers can no longer retire to avoid disciplinary proceedings. A route taken by thousands over the years, with gold-plated pensions intact.

Which brings us to two very recent West Yorkshire cases that, whilst not yet finalised, have ‘cover-up‘ written all over them. They have come to attention through whistleblowers brave, and public-spirited, enough to put their head above the parapet.

As criminal charges may follow in at least one of the two cases (probably as a result of this exposé), care has to be taken not to prejudice any contemplated proceedings and the names and ranks of the officers involved are, for the present time, not being revealed.

Curiously, both these officers have previously faced criminal proceedings for assault on members of the public. Neither was convicted:

The most senior of the two, of managerial rank, was cleared by a jury after a controversial trial concerning an incident that happened off-duty. The on-line report of those proceedings has, fairly recently, been wiped from the newspaper website that had carried it for some years. Presumably, after the officer came under increasing fire in a series of complaints made against him by members of the public who felt his conduct had fallen below the standards expected from a senior policeman.

The more junior officer, a police constable, was charged with assault, but the case did not proceed beyond the plea hearing due to witness issues. He resumed normal duties as a neighbourhood patrol officer in one of the many former mining communities in the county. He is said to be a likeable lad, but lacking in common sense. The assault charge was described as one of a number of disciplinary ‘near misses’.

On 21st July, 2017, the constable was arrested and detained over suspicion of improper contact with a young girl. She was a resident of a care home at the material time. It is said that there were inappropriate remarks made to the girl, by the constable, during a visit to the care home. This allegedly sparked further messages, and the sending of at least one photograph of an indecent nature. His locker was searched and police mobile phone siezed. Suspension from duty quickly followed, once the deputy chief constable’s sanction had been obtained.

The matter is further complicated by separate allegations that, when the first contact was flagged up to the constable’s supervision, no safeguarding measures were put in place to prevent an escalation. The suspicion persists that this management failing, and how to scrub around it, will be occupying the attention of the force’s decision makers.

Having received information about the incidents, and allegations, from three separate sources – which included being provided with the officer’s name, rank and collar number – the press office at West Yorkshire Police was contacted for comment, or a statement, early on 26th July, 2017. They were also asked to confirm if criminal charges were laid and, if so, when the officer would next appear before a court. For a variety of reasons, which will become clear as this matter unfolds, it is a case I would want to report upon. Preferably, exclusively.

Two and a half days later, the press office reverted with a refusal to comment, grounded in the fact that there were legal proceedings in process. They have been asked to clarify whether those proceedings are criminal, misconduct, or both. No response has, so far, been provided over three days later.

At the same time, the press office of the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) was also contacted. The question put to them concerned a mandatory referral of the matter as an abuse of the police officer’s powers to procure a sexual relationship. A form of corruption that the police watchdog has emphasised as one of their priorities. There has been no response at all from the IPCC, despite being pressed to do so on social media. Which gives rise to the genuinely held, and well grounded, suspicion that no referral had taken place prior to the press enquiry and a scramble is now under way as to how best to present that failure without appearig critical of WYP or their own lack of oversight.

To journalists dealing with the press offices of policing bodies this will come as no surprise; they are routinely opaque. To the public, who may have young girls as part of their family, this will be alarming. The victim, and the care home staff, may also be in the dark and not receiving appropriate liasion. The constable himself may need welfare assistance and support; often this type of offending is part of a matrix of troubled circumstances. For example, a chaotic home, or professional, life.

We can only speculate, until the police and the IPCC emerge from their ‘hidey-hole’ and inform precept payers, and the press, with sufficient information to maintain public confidence, but without prejudice to any ongoing proceedings.

The situation with the senior officer, and safeguarding risks associated with him, whilst very different in its circumstance and context, is also not being managed in a way that maintains public confidence in West Yorkshire Police. Indeed, it could be said that this officer has also led a charmed existence for a number of years now, whilst enjoying the patronage of one very senior officer in particular, ACC Andy Battle. An officer whose career has not been one without its own controversies – and one with whom I have clashed, personally.

Beginning in 2011, their have been a number of well evidenced complaints against the officer at the centre of the safeguarding concerns. During which time, he has held two significant, high profile roles. One of which may surprise and shock many members of the public. Whilst I am familiar with this officer’s career, to specify those roles, or indeed his rank, may present a risk of jigsaw identification.

The complaints which are known about – and the presumption is that there are more that the force seeks to conceal – include those made by a highly-regarded former police officer.

Other complaints were made by two well-connected West Yorkshire businessmen whose cases, for different reasons, attracted widespread press and broadcast attention. Two of the complaints concerned anger management issues, which was a feature of the evidence heard against him at the criminal trial. One of the complaints involved three successive witness statements being given by the officer, each different – and all inconsistent with independent evidence.

Another concerned a covert surveillance operation on me, mounted by WYP, in 2013. In October of that year, a group of my justice campaigning friends and myself met, not for the first time, socially, at the White Horse public house in Emley. Unknown to us WYP had placed at least one officer in the bar to observe the group. As we left, an unmarked grey BMW 5 series estate car tailed one of my guests as he left the pub and drove towards home. After less than two miles the errant officer and a uniformed colleague stopped my friend’s car, an expensive and very distinctive vehicle. The two officers proceeded to invent reasons for the stop – and asked the driver to take a breath test. It blew negative, as my friend is a virtual tee-totaller. The police had followed him because he had been the ‘carrier’ in the pub for other guests’ drinks and, as a result, the police watcher inside the pub had fingered the ‘wrong’ man. Not that if they had fingered the ‘right’ man would it have made a difference. I had been picked up at my home, nearby, and driven to (and from) the pub by a teetotal, retired police officer with 31 years exemplary service.

The most extraordinary part of this episode is that the unmarked police vehicle had been ‘borrowed’ from the force’s Carr Gate operational services complex, for the purpose, when the errant officer was based elsewhere and his duties, at the time, would certainly not have included covert policing. Quite the opposite, in fact. When he was identified at the scene. he put his head in his hands, over the steering wheel, like a man who knew the game was up.

One of the two businessman has now issued a wide-ranging civil claim, being handled by one of the top police complaints solicitors in the country, Iain Gould [2]. A without prejudice offer made by the force, in an attempt to settle matters, was countered by a more realistic sum that the complainant would agree to. At first, the force solicitor, Mike Percival, claimed this counter-offer had never been received by him, but had to retract when West Yorkshire Police disclosed materials, by way of a data subject access request, that included the very letter that Mr Percival stated he had not received. A routine day at the office for those unfortunate enough to have to deal with the smoke and mirrors world of WYP on a regular basis.

The complaints made by the former police officer have also been a thorn in both the side of the force and the errant policing manager. They are very well articulated and properly evidenced. At first, the force attempted to deal with them ‘off-system’ by way of a ‘fob-off’ letter from a crony of the officer being complained about.

Subsequent attempts to deflect the complaints do not reflect well on the force, either. The consistent thread of the complaints is of flouting regulations, poor interpersonal skills and intemperate responses to any form of challenge. The risk he posed to others was set out in stark detail by a highly respected, hugely experienced individual by way of close observation.

During this process, it was also revealed that the officer in question had applied for a transfer, from his previous force, to both Humberside and Lincolnshire Police, and turned down, before joining WYP. Which raises another set of questions as to how low the latter force set the bar for in-service recruits. Particularly relevant, at the present time, as WYP embark on a drive to attract over 600 officers to their ranks.

For my own part, I wrote to Chief Inspector Michelle Martin on 30th March 2015, highlighting the risk her miscreant fellow manager posed. She obviously didn’t agree, as she never even acknowledged the email, let aone provided a substantive response. It was copied to ACC Battle (and two other recipients), so it is not open to either CI Martin or ACC Battle to say they were not warned, in very bleak terms, that here was an accident (or worse) waiting to happen.

As night follows day, happen it has. The troubled officer has, it seems, imploded and suffered what is described to me as a ‘mental breakdown’. Surrounding this trauma, there have been a series of unappealing incidents about which I cannot, at this time, go into detail. They, allegedly, involve three females, two of them young, one of whom has been removed from his home by a council-run agency. It is said that the local authority had also, previously, been contacted with concerns over the risks this officer posed.

The overwhelming feeling is that what has happened in the case could well have been prevented with a more enlightened approach to officer welfare, and safety of the public, by the force and, equally, investigating public complaints proportionately and heeding the clear safeguarding warnings that were being given to senior managers. Most notably, ACC Battle.

The reaction to this crisis from WYP is much the same as with the constable at the centre of the grooming scandal. Lock down on information, keep colleagues and affected members of the public in the dark – and hope their luck holds out with no further serious incidents.

The present chief constable of West Yorkshire Police, Dee Collins, has been in post now for over three years (the first two and a bit as temporary post holder, in the enforced absence of the errant Mark Gilmore). She certainly talks the on-message safeguarding and victim priority talk, but it is time to walk the walk when the misconduct, or criminality, is within her own force.

Ms Collins is nobody’s fool, as her track record shows. Lots of sharp-end operational policing experience and, more unusually, spells as a Fed rep, and a Superintendents’ Association rep, to boot. Which may be unprecedented in the history of the post of chief constable, but decidedly useful tools for a chief officer to have in her bag.

Chief Constable Dee Collins, pictured in the famous Oak Room at West Yorkshire Police HQ, has endeared herself to many with an easy communication style.

Reputations, both amongst the ranks as well as the public, can be made, or lost, by dealing with these cases in the prescribed manner – and with an appropriate level of openness and transparency.

It would be a major step forward if the force, finally, had a leader that could shed the decades-old perception of a policing organisation where ‘cover-up‘ is the reflex reaction to a management incompetence, or investigative failure.

Over to you, Ma’am.

 

Page last updated: Sunday 30th July, 2017 at 1825hrs

Corrections: Please let me know if there is a mistake in this article — I will endeavour to correct it as soon as possible.

Right of reply: If you are mentioned in this article and disagree with it, please let me have your comments. Provided your response is not defamatory it will be added to the article.

© Neil Wilby 2015-2017. Unauthorised use or reproduction of the material contained in this article, without permission from the author, is strictly prohibited. Extracts from and links to the article (or blog) may be used, provided that credit is given to Neil Wilby, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

 

 

 

Author: Neil Wilby

Former Johnston Press area managing director. Justice campaigner. Freelance investigative journalist.

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