Select Committee pulls no punches over flawed police complaints system

Priti Patel HASC

The powerful Home Affairs Select Committee has issued strongly worded findings today (1st March, 2022) into how complaints against police officers are handled. This inquiry was set up to examine the role and remit of the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) in relation to the police complaints and discipline system. The Committee considered how the IOPC and police forces around the country work to resolve complaints and progress made in reforming the system following criticisms of the time taken to resolve complaints. They also sought to consider what changes might be required to improve public confidence in the police complaints and discipline systems.

The IOPC was established in January 2018 to handle complaints against police officers
and forces in England and Wales. Its creation was part of a series of measures aimed at
improving police accountability and discipline, as well as increasing public confidence in
how complaints were handled. It replaced the Independent Police Complaints Commission
(IPPC) which had itself replaced the Police Complaints Authority (PCA) in 2003, again
following public and political concerns about the failings of the PCA and “the lack of
an independent system to deal with complaints and conduct matters within the police
service”.

But the IOPC is only part of the system of dealing with complaints and police conduct. It
handles the most serious and sensitive cases (investigation of officers’ conduct in relation
to the murder of Sarah Everard, for example, or the recent report on conduct at Charing
Cross police station in London). Most complaints are, however, dealt with by local forces
themselves. Each of England and Wales’s 43 territorial police forces has a separate Professional Standards Department (PSD) that oversees complaints. In addition, chief constables are responsible for ensuring that PSDs handle issues fairly and justly. Chief constables themselves are accountable to elected Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) or their equivalents, such as Deputy Mayors, in some regions.

22 witnesses gave live evidence before the Committee over a 4 month period between January and May, 2021. 35 others submitted written evidence for consideration.

The committee’s recommendations and comments include:

– The IOPC must do more to minimise delays to investigations, including proactively calling to account those responsible for delays or those who refuse to co-operate.

– Police forces, individual officers and their staff associations must also take more responsibility for “rooting out bad behaviour” and ensure a non-defensive culture and response to complaints and conduct issues.

– The Government should review how recommendations arising from independent or managed investigations, inquests and inspections are reported to ensure this is done in a more joined up and meaningful way. The Select Committee recommends this data be published centrally.

– The Government should report twice-yearly to the Select Committee on the progress of implementation of IOPC recommendations by police forces.

This is the report summary (the full 58 page report can be read here) and it pulls few punches:

“Our society is policed by consent. That means that police officers are given considerable powers to do the often difficult, often dangerous job of investigating crime and maintaining public safety. It also means that those officers have a duty to the public they serve to conduct themselves according to the highest standards of professional behaviour.

“Well-functioning conduct and complaints systems are essential to maintaining the trust on which the founding Peel principles created this balance between police and public. We launched this inquiry 18 months ago, focused on the newly created Independent Office of Police Complaints (IOPC), to explore continuing disquiet at the way in which police forces in England and Wales investigate and deal with complaints about the conduct of forces and individual officers. Dissatisfaction with the handling of police complaints is nothing new–the current system is itself an intended improvement on reforms made because of similar public concern about the previous system. Some of that dissatisfaction is unjustified and unfair; the IOPC has made significant strides towards a more open, transparent and responsive system.

“However, the feeling remains that some forces and officers treat complaints against them as challenges to their authority or matters to be sidestepped. In spite of welcome reforms and improvements, sufficient of the submissions we have received for this inquiry demonstrate that the task of providing—and demonstrably providing—a fair, open and, above all, fully trusted mechanism to deal with misconduct remains, as yet, unfinished.

“Most complaints about police officers and forces are dealt with at local level within the 43 police forces of England and Wales or by their individual professional standards departments. Investigations into officers may have a devastating effect on them and on their families, and it is essential that they be dealt with quickly and fairly to identify officers whose behaviour requires improvement or dismissal and to lift the cloud of suspicion from those who have acted properly. Even more importantly, it is essential to public trust in the system that those complaints are treated seriously, transparently and quickly, with measurable and transparent sanctions against officers who do transgress, up to and including their dismissal from the police or even their conviction for criminal offences.

“It is also apparent that community trust in forces and in their professional standards departments relies on those forces reflecting the communities they police and serve. The low proportion of Black and minority ethnic representation within standards departments is a long-standing concern and urgent evidence is required that the present imbalance is being redressed. The concern this raises is reflected in the statistics demonstrating lower trust among BME communities in the complaints system than is the case for other sections of society.

“Directly elected Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) also have a role in overseeing the investigation of complaints. PCCs were offered options in 2020 to extend the role they play, and it is disappointing that few have so far opted to do more than the minimum required of them. We have heard from some that they may be insufficiently resourced to do so; we have also detected little enthusiasm among them, with rare exceptions, to adopt the role offered by the 2020 reforms.

“The most serious complaints are handled by the Independent Office of Police Conduct (IOPC), set up in 2018 to replace the IPPC. The new body has made significant advances, notably in speeding the process for dealing with complaints so that most are now disposed of within 12 months. There are, however, concerns about the strength of its investigations, the qualifications of its investigators and the transparency of its operations. Communication of its decisions has also been identified as a continuing problem, notably by Lady Brittan in relation to investigation into the conduct of officers who investigated the case of false allegations made against her late husband, the former Home Secretary Lord Brittan.

“Concern that the IPPC’s leadership structure led to confused and divided decision-making also led the Government to streamline governance within the new IOPC, meaning that its Director General is also chair of its board, and therefore without direct internal oversight of his actions and decisions, even if he remains accountable to his board and to Parliament. While this suspension of normal checks and balances within a publicly funded body may have appeared to have a practical justification four years ago, we believe the time has come to review this arrangement and to consider adding an independent Chair to the board, in line with common practice.

“Police officers do a difficult and dangerous job on all our behalf. At worst, officers risk their lives, and Parliament will not forget that PC Keith Palmer is, sadly, only one of many officers who have died protecting others. However, events during our inquiry also demonstrate the worst that officers can do: the murder of Sarah Everard and the recent IOPC report into the disgraceful, misogynistic, racist and bullying behaviour of a substantial number of officers at London’s Charing Cross police station need no further comment here.

“We have heard that officers too often see complaints against them as matters to be deflected rather than opportunities to root out those whose behaviour demeans the office of constable or to clear the names and reputations of those who conduct themselves according to the professional standards required. The new IOPC makes recommendations for future learning. We need to see more ready acceptance of those recommendations by forces and clear evidence that national recommendations are being implemented locally. There is a strong need for a cultural change, established by and led from the top, to ensure that lessons are learned, that actions are taken to redress poor and unprofessional behaviour, and that police officers remember always that the trust of the public on which they depend needs to be earned and constantly maintained”.

The Select Committee also noted the broader cultural issues amongst police forces and officers engaged with the misconduct process, contributing to “a culture of obstruction and delay”. However, the Committee concluded, surprisingly against that background, that it should not be necessary to compel officers to cooperate investigations.

INQUEST, the only UK charity providing expertise on state related deaths, believes that there should be a legal requirement for police officers (and other public bodies and employees) to compel them to be open, honest and transparent about their actions. The ‘Hillsborough Law’, more formally titled The Public Authority (Accountability) Bill, is a draft law which would enable this.

They also call for a national oversight mechanism, tasked with overseeing all the recommendations arising from deaths, to ensure recommendations are not lost or left to gather dust, but instead are collated and acted upon to prevent future deaths. The committee’s comments in this area are welcome.

Deborah Coles, Director of INQUEST, said: “For too long the police complaints system has not met the needs of bereaved people or the public by failing to hold the police to account for criminality and wrongdoing. As such, the perception is that the police are above the law.

The current culture of delay, denial and obfuscation in the system, at every level, frustrates the role it has in the prevention of ill treatment and enabling justice and change.

We have called for a culture change for too long. It is clear that we need a statutory duty of candour, which would make it a legal requirement that police involved in deaths and serious incidents are open and honest about their actions.

We welcome the committee’s acknowledgment of many of the key issues. This must lead to concrete action. Not only from the IOPC but across police forces and the system as a whole.”

INQUEST gave detailed written and oral evidence to the inquiry, alongside the Police Action Lawyers Group and members of the INQUEST Lawyers Group.

Diana Johnson, the MP for Hull North and Chair of the Select Committee, said the IOPC had a statutory duty to deliver a complaints system that can restore public confidence after a succession of scandals had left trust in policing at a “perilous point”.

Amongst the committee members who conducted the inquiry were two from West Yorkshire (Yvette Cooper and Holly Lynch) and one from Greater Manchester (James Daly and Andrew Gwynne). Both police forces in those large, metropolitan areas have well chronicled, grotesque failures, over many years, in dealing with public complaints against their officers.

Very few adjacent to the police complaints system in England and Wales, including the author of this article, Neil Wilby, whose home force is West Yorkshire Police and with whom he has battled for over 10 years as an advocate on behalf of complainants against them, would hold the view that the IOPC is remotely capable of such delivery.

Another is Iain Gould, a notably successful lawyer (and popular blogger) who specialises in compensation claims against the police. This is what he has to say:

“I have over 25 years’ experience in this area of the law. I am a Director and Head of Litigation in national firm DPP Law Ltd. I have led the department for over 25 years.

“Police (and other agents of the State) have wide-ranging powers to protect the public from crime. Sadly, many officers regularly abuse these powers, by reason of ignorance, indifference or malice.

“Long experience has conclusively shown to me that the Police Complaint procedure is not fit for purpose (unless that purpose is to brush police misconduct ‘under the carpet’ and frustrate and deter individuals from pursuing complaints).

“Other than the most serious of cases, such as death in custody, the vast majority of police complaints are investigated by the very force that has wronged you. Little wonder, then, that the majority of complaints are not upheld”.

In March, 2012, an unarmed man, Anthony Grainger, was shot dead in a supermarket car park in Culceth, Cheshire by armed police officers. The Public Inquiry that eventually followed, in 2017, lasted over 5 months.  The Inquiry Chair, HHJ Thomas Teague QC summarised in his Final Report: “Anthony Grainger’s untimely death was not the consequence of one wrong decision but of many. As often happens, it took a combination of errors and blunders to produce so calamitous an outcome – an outcome for which I have concluded that Greater Manchester Police is to blame”.

Anthony’s widowed partner, Gail Hadfield Grainger, says: “We received a public apology from the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police (read here) and expected accountability to follow. However, not one single officer has yet been held to account for the unlawful killing of Anthony. The IOPC ‘investigations’ into six of their officers were protracted, lacked rigour and subsumed by GMP’s delaying and obfuscation tactics”.

Another nationally known justice campaigner, Janet Alder, offers these powerful words:

“Little appears to have changed in the complaints system of the police since the then chair, Nick Hardwick, investigated the case of my brother, Christopher Alder, who was unlawfully killed by the Humberside Police in 1998. His comments in the IPCC 2006 report were that the disciplinary system was more akin to a Court Martial system where the police force implicated in Christopher Alder’s death recommended no action against the officers involved.

“A bereaved family that has been through not one, but three situations, the death of Christopher, illegal spying on the family and his body in a mortuary for 11 years without the family knowing while his body was being used for sudden death training with trainee officers from the same force that responsible for his unlawful killing.

“Whilst officers made monkey noises as Christopher lay dying, and crucial evidence was destroyed by police, no-one has been held to account. We can go around in circles, with blinkers on, dismissing horrific events, like the family whose loved ones were photographed and the pictured passed around officers after their death. renaming the complaints system and those in charge of implementing it. But without the will to admit and put in place a system of accountability and standards, which would make those officers who join feel they had something to aspire to, nothing will change! We will be talking about the same issues in 10 years time. The police is a powerful institution many fear to challenge. Without accountability and an aim of mere damage limitation to reputations, there will be no change”.

Page last updated: Wednesday 2nd March, 2022 at 0945 hours

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

Picture credit:  Parliament UK

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 2015-2021. 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 Media, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Published by Neil Wilby

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

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