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.