Last Thursday I had the privilege of attending the Westminster Legal Policy Forum Keynote Seminar on the future of policing - accountability, cost and effectiveness. A briefing document from the event, including a transcript of all speeches and questions, should be available on this page in about a week. The session raised a lot of issues worth discussing, so I'll follow the structure used on the day: this article will cover "trust and accountability", and a follow-up article will cover "engagement, cost and effectiveness".
These events provide a forum for policy makers to hear speakers who are close to the issues, and receive feedback from interested parties. It's worth mentioning, I think, that the Forum organisers sought out this site and personally invited its editors to this event. Tickets are prohibitively expensive for individuals or volunteer organisations, but they are willing to fund attendance for a single delegate if necessary. I think it demonstrates something positive about our government that they go out of their way to invite challengers to their policy debates.
Unfortunately, that open-minded spirit did not extend to the discussion itself. It began with some back-patting comments from the Chair and Stephen Kershaw, a Home Office representative, introducing themes such as the need for an "emotional connection" between the public and police force, accountability being devolved to a more local and personal level, "value for money", visibility and impact, workforce efficiency, reducing bureaucracy, and collaboration and partnership. There was lots of jargon - these topics have clearly occupied policy-makers for months, if not years. It is clear that the police are working very hard to improve the service they offer. But it seems to me that a considerable proportion of that effort is misguided or wasted - a theme I will return to in my next article.
"Crime is down, and public confidence in the police is up," Stephen Kershaw concluded. "Generally speaking, we're in a pretty good place. The force is doing fantastic work." This, and continued references to the 2008 HMIC report, made me wonder whether anything in the last two years had impacted on the consciousness of policy-makers at all.
Two interesting things arose during questions to the Home Office speaker. Someone asked how all these good intentions are to be communicated to the public, and Kershaw replied that the official narrative is one of consistent long-term strategy; not many new initiatives, but a steady improvement over the last twelve years. This seemed to be out of touch with reality at best.
Secondly, in answering a question from a delegate for Penrose, a support organisation for people with mental health difficulties, Kershaw tellingly referred to "offenders and potential offenders" with mental health problems. Hardly helpful when mental health activists already need to campaign against popular myths of mental health sufferers as dangerous and violent; this attitude reflects the tendency within the police to treat members of the public as "guilty until proven innocent" in the contexts of political protest, stop and search tactics, or DNA sampling.
Next was the panel on "trust and accountability", during which nothing was said about public order policing, the mistreatment of activists, journalists and photographers, and the abuse of anti-terror legislation. The first critical note of the day came from Stephen Cragg, a Barrister who works with complaints against the police. He cited some worrying statistics: less than 100 in 31 000 complaints made against the police are investigated by the IPCC every year (plus another 130 which are "managed"); 90% of all complaints are deemed to be 'unsubstantiated', and 95% of complaints relating to serious assault or abuse. A postcode lottery is evident, where the percentage of complaints investigated differs massively in different areas of the country.
The IPCC has recently introduced the right of appeal against their decision, which has resulted in a flood of 5000 appeals made per year - far more than they can hope to process. These appeals are dealt with by "judicial review", which (despite the complaints of the IPCC) at least has the positive effect that they have to live up to the standards required by judicial review, in case the complaint goes to appeal.
Jane Furniss, Chief Executive Officer for the IPCC, stood up to give an outline of the revised statutory guidance for the police complaints system, which the IPCC have been working on for the last two years. Things clearly move slowly in large bureaucracies. She offered some useful history - the complaints procedure (which the Crown Prosecution Service, for instance, does not have) was enshrined in legislation in response to the problems of the 70s and 80s, where complaints were largely ignored. The current system, therefore, focusses on recording and due process - which has the disadvantage of making complaints incredibly unwieldy, slow, and difficult to handle in large quantities.
Furniss acknowledged the "high levels of public dissatisfaction" with the handling of complaints made against the police, which she described as a "failure". She finished by describing the tension between sanctions - apparently, internal discipline has historically been police strategy in response to complaints - and problem-solving, focussed on putting things right for the complainant and making sure the mistake does not happen again. She described the need for a "culture change", focussing less on sanctions and more on redress.
When the floor was opened for questions, the very first was about the Kingsnorth Climate Camp, asking why the abuses of that event had to be repeated at the G20 before the complaints were heard, and calling attention to the fact that the inspectorate seems incapable of distinguishing between activism and criminality. The questioner did not get a satisfactory answer. Much was said about mistakes made and lessons learned, and Furniss pointed out that comment on Tomlinson was impossible until the trial; the delay, she said, was with the Crown Prosecution Service, and was "deeply frustrating" for the IPCC. She described the issue of badge numbers as "a failure of front-line supervision", blaming the sergeants responsible for each unit in not checking and reporting that their officers were wearing their numerals. This is more specific than any spokespeople for the Metropolitan Police Service have been willing to be - at every opportunity, the Met have accepted a vague, non-specific responsibility but rejected any implication of individual culpability on the part of any particular officer. It seems doubtful that Furniss' (or the IPCC's) opinion will have any real impact if the Met do not agree.
Furniss finished by arguing that in many cases (of disproportionate public order policing) the public was unsympathetic to the protestors, and this wider social context was inevitably reflected in the policing of the event. This attitude fails to take into account the argument that the police should aim for a higher standard of behaviour than members of the public. It also ignores the extent to which the public mood was influenced, in the case of the G20, by police lies, scaremongering and media manipulation.
I stood up next, and asked about the role of sanctions in visible accountability. I made a point of saying that I accepted that lessons had been learned from Kingsnorth and the G20, as the policing at subsequent protests has been much improved (notwithstanding some worrying use of dogs at Ratcliffe on Soar). However, no-one has accepted culpability for past abuses in public order policing. Of course these abuses should never be repeated - but many victims want justice too.
Civil liberties campaigner Cory Doctorow wrote after the Kingsnorth protest that "transparency means nothing without justice". Catching offending police officers on camera and publishing it online helps no-one if those abuses go unpunished; it merely results in massive public resentment, and a sense that the police are subject to no authority but their own. If members of the public had behaved in a similar way they would be facing criminal charges.
Ensuring that such abuses don't happen again is a great start, and I don't want to devalue the progress that has been made. But what message does it send if the individual officers, Commanders or strategists responsible won't accept personal responsibility, or offer any public or personal apology to victims of police violence? If the constables on the ground at the G20 were not identifiable due to a mass ditching of their numbers, then culpability should pass up the ranks. There has been no evidence of any internal discipline, loss of rank, or criminal convictions resulting from Kingsnorth and the G20. Given that in other areas policing is getting demonstrably more oppressive - in the abuse of FIT, for instance, or the abuse of anti-terror legislation - I asked how the speakers expected the police to demonstrate visible, public accountability if there were no sanctions against any of the officers involved in past abuses.
My question was not answered. It wasn't even acknowledged. After a short pause the Chair asked "does anyone else have a question about accountability?" and the discussion was moved on. This is fascinating in light of the report on the policing of the G20, released yesterday by the MPA's Civil Liberties Panel, which revealed that
although several officers were not wearing their badge numbers at the April protests, neither they nor their supervisors were formally disciplined.
A small number had been given a verbal warning, the report found, but it was not clear whether the advice to the officers was recorded on file.
I heard lots of fine rhetoric about trust, visible accountability, and public engagement, but it seemed to me that these words were not backed up by an actual desire to hold anyone within the police personally responsible. I'm not looking for a scapegoat, but the police are entrusted with extraordinary powers on the basis that they will use them appropriately and proportionately. When the police cite the bad behaviour of protestors as justification for violent assault, and yet none of the arrested activists are ever charged (which might support the police's claim that their response was justified), it seems disgusting that the officers responsible for unprovoked violence should not be taken to court - or at the very least stripped of the powers they have abused.
Last week, nearly a year after the events of the G20 which exploded these issues into the public awareness, Andrew May of Defend Peaceful Protest submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Metropolitan Police. The IPCC referred eight cases from the G20 (out of 276) to the Crown Prosecution Service, and stated in their release that the Metropolitan Police Service would provide information on these cases and the decisions resulting from them. In the FOI request, Mr May asked to know the status of all eight cases; how many of the three misconduct proceedings referenced by the IPCC have been concluded, and what punishment has been meted out (if any) to the officers involved; and the status of the sixty cases which the IPCC determined should be subject to a "supervised investigation".
An identical FOI request was submitted to the IPCC several months ago, who delayed six weeks before finally referring Mr May to the Metropolitan Police Service. This response does not inspire confidence in the IPCC's ability or inclination to hold the Met accountable. If the Met do not reply within the statutory 20 days, Mr May will assume the information is being withheld, and press release accordingly.
Despite the self-congratulation palpable at internal senior events, the police do not have a good track record when it comes to transparency, accountability and justice. At every step in the recent narrative of public order policing, they have acted in such a way as to inspire suspicion and mistrust. The illegal searches and destruction/confiscation of property, restriction of movement and violence at Kingsnorth was not even acknowledged until the abuses were repeated at G20, with fatal results. Immediately after the G20 the Met published inaccurate information in their own defence, which was later revealed to be false. Since then we have seen improved police tactics in certain public order situations, but nothing to give the impression that the police believe Kingsnorth actually took place, or that they consider the G20 anything other than a trivial mistake, not worth weighing against their all-round excellence in every other respect.
If the police are as serious about being seen to be accountable and regaining public trust as they sounded in Thursday's speeches, they need to pursue a dedicated policy of holding individual officers, duty sergeants, commanding officers and back-room strategists to account. If all the individuals responsible for the culture of violence and abuse at past events still retain their police powers, lasting change within the force seems unlikely, as new officers will see that unprofessionalism and abuses of power tend to go unpunished. While this remains the case, it is very hard to trust that any talk of accountability is sincere.