Giving the John Harris Memorial Lecture on Tuesday, Dame Anne Owers, the recently appointed Chair of the Independent Police Complaints Commission, spent much of her speech focusing on the need for increased resources.
It would be truly ironic if whilst Police Officer numbers are reducing because of necessary reductions in force budgets, the body that oversees the management of complaints against the police were to receive additional funding before it demonstrated every possible efficiency saving.
As someone who had complaints made against him as a Constable and investigated them as an Inspector, Superintendent and Deputy Chief Constable, I have formed the conclusion over the years that the police complaints system is not only clumsy and bureaucratic, but it fails to deal effectively with complaints in a manner that has credibility with either the public or the officers subject of complaint.
If a householder is victim of a burglary, he may well find the crime report is taken over the telephone, an assessment made of the probability of detection and no further action taken, or at best a uniform officer might attend to take details. Where good practice prevails, a "Burglary Team" may be in place and they will review the case, but it will probably be signed off for no further action by a Detective Inspector at best. The detection rate for Burglary in a Dwelling of my local force presently stands at about one in eight.
I have lost count of the number of times people have said to me that they reported a crime to the police, but the attending officers were unable to do more than say "There isn't much we can do", before filling in some paperwork and leaving.
However, if as the officers are going away, they see a well-known local burglar in the street outside the house and stop him to check what he is up to, he may well make a complaint of "harassment" to deter those and other Police Officers from trying to interrupt his criminal activities with such attention.
The level of activity that will now take place almost beggars belief and is in stark contrast to that received by the crime victim referred to. The details will be taken (usually by an Inspector) and passed to the "Professional Standards Department" of the force. It may be assessed as suitable for "Informal Resolution" – a title which should never have been used for a highly prescriptive process which rarely leaves anyone satisfied – but our burglar will probably have none of that, because it doesn't cause the Officers enough problems.
A full investigation will require the taking of statements, documentation of exhibits ranging from the original crime report to the Officer's pocketbooks and the "stop" forms. A zealous "PSD" officer may even want to see colleagues to whom the officers spoke in the station later that shift, or obtain the control room tapes of any checks carried out. All this will happen even though the individual makes a similar complaint every time an Officer speaks to him.
Subsequently, interviews will be conducted with the officers, who will be accompanied by a representative from the Police Federation The whole file will be assessed by a Superintendent and passed to a Chief Officer for decision as to whether disciplinary action will be taken against the officers.
If the case alleges a criminal act on the part of the officers, the Crown Prosecution Service has a special Division which will review the evidence and decide whether court proceedings will follow, then the Chief Officer will decide on disciplinary action.
In all probability, in the circumstances described, the decision will be that no misconduct has taken place – a decision that will receive scrutiny from the Police Authority, the Independent Police Complaints Commission and perhaps even the Inspectorate of Constabulary as part of their regular reviews of force performance.
If, however, criminal or disciplinary action is taken, a lawyer's bonanza will follow, taking months or even years to resolve. A recent case involving a Dorset Officer took over three years and the individual had the matter hanging over his head for all that time before he was acquitted at court. A few years ago, I was presiding at a disciplinary hearing with one complainant as a witness and one police officer subject of the charge, but no less than six lawyers present, including solicitors and counsel.
Describing the cumbersome and bureaucratic complaints process in such a manner will no doubt sound cynical and defensive to many readers. However, every police force I served in had its "regular complainers" and individual solicitors who would initiate a complaint on behalf of a client as soon as there was a whiff of a charge being brought.
The problem is this myriad of unjustified complaints produces an environment where the genuine grievance about an Officer's actions becomes lost. The proportion of "unsubstantiated" complaints by far outweighs those where poor practice, rudeness or wrongdoing are discovered – and rest assured, Officers who bend the rules or treat people they come into contact with badly are "outed" far more frequently by their colleagues than by public complaints.
Nobody wants Police Officers who do not carry out their job properly and this applies even more to those (very few) who act corruptly – for whatever reason. The simple fact is that the public end up not being confident in the present system for dealing with Police Complaints and it is unable to deal swiftly with even the most simple of cases.
I make no criticism of Dame Anne, or the IPCC – they have a difficult job to do – the answer does not lie in giving the Commission more money to spend, but in changing the present system so it deals swiftly, efficiently and effectively with complaints, gives satisfaction to aggrieved members of the public whilst being fair to Police Officers and – above all – does not cost a fortune to run.