Select Committee on Home Affairs First Report


The investigation of a complaint

63. Investigations into complaints which have not been resolved informally or withdrawn or been the subject of a dispensation from the PCA are undertaken by the police themselves.[109] An investigating officer (IO) is appointed and the officer who is the subject of the complaint is notified. The IO will conduct the inquiries considered to be relevant and in due course prepare a report on the case. Sometimes the IO will be from another police force, and sometimes-usually in serious cases or where particularly sensitive or difficult issues are raised-the investigation will be supervised by the PCA, but it will always be a police investigation.

64. For some critics from outside the police world, it is the fact that the investigations of the police are undertaken by the police that is the central weakness in the whole process.[110] Arguments advanced in favour of this conclusion included both the claim that existing police investigations were inadequate and the view that, whether or not existing investigations were inadequate, an investigation which was independent from the police was essential from the point of view of appearances and the confidence of the public.

The quality of existing investigations

65. How far investigations carried out under present procedures are or are not adequate was a matter on which we received conflicting evidence. Police witnesses argued that as much or more care was paid to these investigations as to normal criminal investigations. For ACPO, Mr Bensley claimed that "the quality of investigation we undertake is extremely thorough" and that study of the average files into a conventional crime under investigation and into an investigation of a police officer would show "we put far more effort, unnecessarily so in many people's view, into investigating complaints against police"; he noted also that these files will have been seen not just by the officers doing the work but by the deputy chief officer of the force, the CPS and the PCA, so weaknesses would be spotted.[111] For the Police Superintendents' Association, Chief Superintendent Parkinson was adamant that investigations were very thorough, adding that he had had personal experience of this.[112] For the Police Federation, Mr Broughton described complaint investigations as "robust and effective".[113]

66. Mr Bensley[114] said that he attached great importance to the quality and individual skills of officers in forces' complaints and discipline departments and regarded it as an important training ground which all sergeants who were about to be promoted to inspector should go through.[115] Mr Whitehouse accepted that in practice it was for the chief constable of each force to take what action was necessary to ensure that complaints and discipline departments were given a high status. He felt that proof of their competence was "the fear ... in which discipline and complaints departments are held by most constables".[116] Mr Moorhouse, for the PCA, indicated that these departments were probably better staffed now than in earlier years, in that posts were increasingly filled by officers with particular skills as part of their career development rather than officers near the end of their career for whom forces could not find any other posts.[117]

67. As for the quality of the investigations Mr Moorhouse took the view that, while there were times when additional information might have been obtained and that sometimes interviewing methods were conducted too informally, "The vast majority of [complaints] investigations which we see are thoroughly and objectively carried out".[118] Mr Cartwright, the Deputy Chairman, added that:

    "If you suffer a fairly normal crime, a burglary shall we say, the case will be investigated by a constable or a detective constable. Make a complaint against a police officer and the investigating officer has to be a chief inspector and may well be a superintendent. The extent to which sometimes complaints which do not appear to have a lot going for them are thoroughly investigated and the extent to which the investigation goes into seeking witnesses, house to house investigations and things of that sort, was a very considerable surprise to me when I first joined the Authority".[119]

The Director of Public Prosecutions, Dame Barbara Mills, stated that she was " impressed .... by the quality of [investigation] reports, by their objectivity".[120]

68. Some outside groups painted a different picture. Liberty claimed that "all legal practitioners in this area are aware of cases where the investigating officer appointed to a complaint has conducted a less than full inquiry or a less than vigorous interview of the 'complained about' officers".[121] Liberty's Director, Mr Wadham, reported that when acting for complainants lawyers took steps to ensure that they were present during such interviews to prevent any malpractice or pressure from the IO.[122] The Police Action Lawyers Group went further, stating that:

    "Investigating officers suppress, manipulate and invent evidence according to its relevance to the complainant's allegation. Independent witnesses favourable to a complainant are easily persuaded to make brief, uninformative statements and words supportive of the officers under investigation are inserted without witnesses ever being aware of their significance."

and that:

    "The investigating officer makes a prejudicial assessment of the evidence. The Investigating Officer's role is extremely crucial as s/he determines which police officers to interview. A lack of rigour and determination when interviewing police officer suspects, renders any potential action against any offending officers extremely difficult."[123]

The submission from the solicitors Birnbergs was along similar lines, claiming that "It is the almost universal experience of complainants and their lawyers that the bulk of Investigating Officers are hostile, aggressive, dismissive and biased".[124] A submission from JUST TV included evidence suggesting improper behaviour by police forces in a number of specific cases, such as creating delays and lack of impartiality.[125]

69. As already indicated, in serious cases a police force might arrange to have the investigation conducted by a different police force,[126] either because it wanted to ensure that the inquiry was seen to be more independent than one conducted by themselves or because the PCA were supervising the case and instructed them to. We received evidence of some cases where investigations by outside forces had been relatively well regarded by complainants.[127] The PCA explained that it was only a small proportion of investigations which were handled by outside forces, though a much higher proportion of the more serious cases[128] were handled this way.

70. Witnesses had differing opinions also as to whether the quality of police investigations was significantly improved by the process of supervision by the PCA. The key features of supervision are that the supervising PCA Member must approve the selection of investigating officer; he or she can impose requirements necessary for the conduct of the investigation, determine the strategy for the inquiry, and hold regular meetings with the investigating team; and he or she must formally indicate that the inquiry has been satisfactorily completed. Around one thousand cases[129] are currently taken on for supervision by the Authority each year, of which around half are cases which it is mandatory for the Authority to supervise. ACPO witnesses stated that PCA supervisors did their work "thoroughly, meticulously and independently",[130] though the Police Superintendents' Association did not think that PCA supervision made any difference "in terms of the thoroughness of the investigation".[131] The Police Action Lawyers Group thought that supervision did at least reduce the superficiality with which complaints investigations were otherwise conducted.[132] Mr Miller, from Birnberg & Co., citing evidence from the Lapite case and from the less serious Nightingale case, questioned the effectiveness of PCA supervision in strong terms[133] and took the view that the "supervising member is a Home Office appointed civilian .. who has no investigative role and in reality the function amounts to no more than advising IOs on further investigation to undertake based on briefings by the IO".[134]

Assessment of the existing process and public confidence

71. In an inquiry of this nature this Committee cannot in practice establish for itself whether or not police investigations of the police are properly conducted. It may be that part of the reconciliation between the two different pictures described above is that whereas the large majority of investigations are properly conducted some are not, including some serious ones. It does not take a great number of inadequately conducted investigations-whether the inadequacy arises from inefficiency or from corruption-to undermine public confidence in the whole system.

72. Indeed we are impressed by the consistently expressed view of the Police Federation that even if no investigations were improperly conducted the public still would not have confidence in a system which was based on the police investigating themselves.[135] As Mr Broughton put it to us, even though his members knew that police investigations against police officers were well conducted "there is a public perception that is not good enough. We see that on the ground ..".[136] The Criminal Law Committee of the Law Society, noting that "The fact that investigations are currently conducted by police officers gives rise to feelings which undermine confidence in the impartiality of the system" also called for the development of an independent investigatory body "because of the continuing belief that a system in which the police investigate themselves is both 'wrong in principle' and 'biased in practice'".[137]

73. There was almost no argument in the evidence we received against the conclusion that independent investigation would be desirable in principle, not least because of the boost this would give to public confidence in the system. We are of the same view. There are however practical considerations which also need to be addressed.

Obstacles to independent investigation

74. The issue is the extent to which independent investigation can be introduced while ensuring that investigations are effective and affordable. These qualifications to the overall principle are significant. While there was little or no evidence against the principle of independent investigation there was substantial evidence against it on practical grounds. The main obstacles were outlined by the Police Complaints Authority in a 1994 report and in their evidence to this inquiry.[138]

75. The first problem was the purely practical one of cost. If all complaints investigations were to be undertaken by an independent body then several hundred investigators, plus support staff, would be needed. It would cover the whole of England and Wales and to be effective in this it would have to operate on at least a regional basis. These centres could not easily be placed in existing police premises without threatening to destroy the appearance of independence they are designed to encourage. Although some of the necessary resources might be diverted from existing police expenditure on complaints investigations, this would still leave a need for extra resources for start-up costs.[139] There was also doubt in the evidence as to whether a separate body could avoid conducting the work on a more expensive basis than the police, given that the latter were able to absorb some of the overhead and other running costs of their complaints and discipline divisions into the rest of their budgets and operations. Police witnesses were anyway concerned at the proposition that an independent body could derive most of its funding by a switching of funds from police complaints departments.[140] They argued that when duties to investigate misconduct were imposed on police forces in 1964 no extra funding was given and that to withdraw those duties now would not remove the need for police investigators because forces would still be responsible for investigating alleged criminal activity by police officers. A reduction in funding for police forces for this purpose would directly affect staffing and divert resources from investigating other crime. The Police Federation took the view that restraints on police funding were tight anyway and they did not think it would be appropriate to fund a new investigatory body from existing police funding.[141]

76. The second issue concerned staffing. It was generally envisaged that a new body would recruit from a number of different sources, including investigators from other departments such as Customs and Excise and the Department for Social Security and perhaps from the private sector for such expertise as accountancy.[142] All the new investigators from these sources would need training in police systems. It would be possible to recruit police officers, either on retirement or on secondment, who of course would not need the same training. But if too high a proportion of the new body's staff were former police officers this again might jeopardise the objective of being seen to be independent.

77. A third issue was whether a new body would get sufficient cooperation from the police. The police would be under a duty to cooperate, but it was recognised nevertheless that almost any group had a natural tendency to stick together in the face of what might appear to be a threat from outside the group. Many witnesses saw this as a problem, but one which could be overcome. For instance Mr Broughton, for the Police Federation, said that there was now in the police "a great willingness to analyse and explain when things go wrong ... I do not think there will be a wall of silence",[143] although the Police Superintendents' Association, while in favour of independent investigation in principle, was less confident on this point.[144] HM Inspectorate of Constabulary noted that the non-police members of the investigatory body-Customs and Excise, DSS etc.-were currently involved in day-to-day partnerships with the police and expressed concern that "police officers will be more guarded in their dealings with their law enforcement partners if they also investigated complaints against them".; they feared also that in discipline investigations external investigators might "unwittingly be a step towards the formation of a more defensive police culture".[145] Mr Miller, from Birnbergs, thought however that independent investigators would be no "more obstructed by the police closing ranks than the present people who do that job. I think the most important thing is that there are investigators who are investigating allegations with vigour ...".[146] Mr Michael thought that there was no reason to fear such a reaction to non-police investigators so long as it was clear that they were part of a wider team.[147]

78. Two other practical disadvantages to do with the effective management of police forces were mentioned: first, the fact that where a crime was alleged this would still have to be investigated by the police anyway, so that two separate inquiries would become necessary and, secondly, that the management information which well-managed forces gain from their complaints and investigation work would be lost. HM Inspectorate of Constabulary laid some emphasis on this, fearing that "If chief constables are relieved of the burden of being the disciplinary authority ... they will lose some of the responsibility, accountability and authority for their force".[148]

79. On balance, most of the official bodies involved in the present system-with the exception of the Police Federation-were uncertain that the practical obstacles to full independent investigation had been shown to be outweighed by the advantages. ACPO witnesses emphasised that they had no objection in principle to independent investigation but they considered that the practical difficulties-they cited principally cost factors-made it an unattractive option; they also noted the danger that although the new body might enjoy public confidence initially, in practice this might disappear as soon as it began to come to findings that complainants were sometimes wrong.[149] The Police Superintendents' Association also suggested that, much as it might be the case that only independent investigation would satisfy the public, it would not necessarily work better in practice.[150] HM Inspectorate suggested that removal of the complaint investigation role from the police was the "too easy answer" and that "The most careful consideration is needed. ... That steps are not taken that will undermine the very nature of [an] envied policing system".[151] The Chairman of the PCA argued that although public confidence must be the objective "no alternative [to the present system] has yet been shown to be better" and that "To change the system to an independent system without evidence that it is going to be a better system, and indeed perhaps with some contrary evidence, would be a very unwise step"; in his view a better approach would be to introduce much greater openness into the present system so that the public could see how effective it was.[152]

80. A different view was taken by non-official observers and participants in the system. In the Hayes report on a new system for Northern Ireland one of the objections to independence-the issue of the police's continuing responsibility for investigation of criminal allegations against the police-was addressed by giving that function also to the independent body.[153] Liberty called for independent investigation (though, as we note below, they made suggestions for steps to be taken in that direction as an alternative to a full move towards a new independent body).[154] The Police Action Lawyers Group, arguing in favour of independent investigation, felt that "there is a fundamental flaw in requiring sometimes vulnerable people to give their accounts of police abuse to other police officers ... An independent complaints and investigation system would create a culture where complainants and their advisers would be more willing to cooperate with investigating officers"...; they felt also that "tinkering with the current procedure [would] not lead to any great improvement" and that a new body should be set up.[155]

109  Essentially the same process-without the possible supervision by the PCA-is applicable to those investigations, which are the majority, which do not arise from complaints. Back

110  Liberty Appendix 11. Back

111  QQ 10-12; files were also open to scrutiny by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary (Q 46). Back

112  Q 156. Back

113  Q 599. Back

114  Mr Bensley gave evidence as Chairman of the sub-committee on Complaints and Discipline of ACPO's Committee on Personnel and Training. Back

115  Q 16. Back

116  Q 17. Back

117  Q 402. Back

118  Q 397. Back

119  Q 399. Back

120  Q 823. Back

121  Appendix 11. Back

122  Q 289. Back

123  Appendix 12. Back

124  Appendix 14. Back

125  See List of Unprinted Memoranda.. Back

126  Q 48. One such case was the investigation led by the Kent Constabulary into the handling by the Metropolitan Police of the Stephen Lawrence murder inquiry. The PCA report on that case indicated that by Dec 1997 the investigation team has "undertaken 523 actions or tasks related to a line of inquiry, taken 160 statements, conducted seventeen major interviews, some of several days' duration, and have, in total, spent 16,000 working hours on the inquiry." Back

127  See JUST TV; Mr Stuart Bower; Ms Susan Caddick (see List of Unprinted Memoranda). Back

128  The PCA indicated that 20 out of 644 investigations currently under supervision by the Authority were being conducted by outside forces, but of the 74 cases which arose from voluntary non-complaint referrals to the Authority (which tended to be more serious than the average complaint case) 10 were being conducted by an outside force. Back

129  Representing a higher number of actual complaints, and including a number of important (154 in 1996/97) non-complaint cases voluntarily referred by the police. Back

130  Q 59. Back

131  Q 158. Back

132  Appendix 12. Back

133  Q 315. Back

134  Appendix 14. Back

135  Appendix 10, para 1.3. Back

136  Q 599. Back

137  Appendix 24, para 9. Back

138  Triennial Review of the Police Complaints Authority 1991-1992 HC(1993-94)396, pp. 15-16; Appendix 10 paras 16-20. Back

139  The Hayes report proposals for Northern Ireland envisaged funding the independent investigatory body by transfers of resources from elsewhere in the system (para 14.2). Back

140  Q 44 and Appendix 2; recent parliamentary answers have indicated that estimated costs of complaints and discipline departments of certain police forces for 1997/98 are Metropolitan Police £13.9m, Greater Manchester Police £2.1m, Merseyside Police £1.6m, West Midlands Police £1.7m, Northumbria Police £0.9m (though the figures are not necessarily all on the same basis) Official Report 18 Nov 1997 col 98 W and 19 Nov 1997 col 215 W. Back

141  Q 605. Back

142  See, for example QQ 322-323 (Liberty). Back

143  Q 602. Back

144  Q 159. Back

145  Appendix 15 paragraph 9. Back

146  Q 325. Back

147  Q 722. Back

148  Appendix 15 paragraph 9. Back

149  QQ 42-44. Back

150  Q 159 and Appendix 4 para 6. Back

151  Appendix 15 paragraph 9. Back

152  QQ 410 and 415. Back

153  Hayes report, para 13.70. Back

154  Appendix 11. Back

155  QQ 410 and 415.. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1998
Prepared 15 January 1998