The future of policing: trust and accountability

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.

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Re: the future of policing: trust and accountability
Posted by Anonymous (92.6.xx.xx) on Mon 22 Mar 2010 at 02:07
I made a complaint to the Met Police last year. The local investigation was a sham, and the investigating officers report made a number of apparently false claims regarding what enquiries were actually carried out. The officers who were subject to my complaint lied blatantly and no effort was made to corroborate their accounts (or mine). Needless to say my complaint was not upheld. I therefore appealed to IPCC, whose conduct was no different to the local investigation. All they did was look at what the police said, and take it as fact, regardless of the fact that this was exactly what I was querying. If this is "judicial review", then I'm a monkey's uncle. And if they think this level of "accountability" does anything but undermine public confidence, they are in cloud cuckoo land. I was abused terribly by police, who knew they were free to act with impunity. And then the IPCC denied me any justice. Makes me sick.
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Re: the future of policing: trust and accountability
Posted by Helen (212.183.xx.xx) on Mon 22 Mar 2010 at 12:03 [ Send Message | View Helen's Scratchpad | View Weblogs ]

I'm sorry to hear that you've undergone such an unpleasant experience. That kind of police response to complaints sounds very familiar, and rings true with a lot of other people I know who have suffered at the hands of police. It was truly bizarre to hear the top brass congratulating themselves about how well they were doing, and it's deeply frustrating that the five or six organisations responsible for assessing the police don't seem to be capable of independent thinking.

You may be able to appeal against the IPCC's decision - it sounds like a tortuously slow process, but I get the impression the judicial reviews are slightly more objective than the IPCC themselves.

Several people in the seminar were calling for a Royal Commission reviewing the whole of policing - apparently the last one was in the early sixties. It's hard to believe that any review organised by the establishment would be able to be sufficiently dispassionate, though.

Re: the future of policing: trust and accountability
Posted by weneedchange000 (194.83.xx.xx) on Fri 23 Apr 2010 at 10:48 [ Send Message ]
I'm also in the process of trying to hold the police accountable for allowing an officer to attempt to unlawfully caution me, then use intimidation when I tried to report him to his sergeant and then felt it was ok to treat me as a criminal rather than investigate malicious lies that were being made against me; he of course was then doing a personal favour for a friend and so had no intention of sticking to the law or checking that I was telling the truth with the evidence I continually offered. He tried to hide what he was doing and said I should just sign a piece of paper that he would send in the post as I was at home at the time and he was at the station, but I'm assuming that as he was off duty at the time of the phone call. I had to insist that he read out what the paper was as he wasn't forthcoming with any information as to what the paper was. I have since dealt with four Inspectors; three of which didn't want to know about my complaint. The first inspector wanted me to go to court first if I didn't pay a penalty fine for a crime I didn't commit; he refused to take down my complaint until I was taken to court, this of course did not happen. The last who happened to be the laziest didn't even check to see where I lived and was looking to arrange a meeting with me; little did he realise because of his great incompetence I lived almost 300 miles away from the station as he thought, but didn't check in the file that I was not living in the same area where he was based! On hearing back from him on the second occasion on Christmas Eve of all days, he said he had found no wrong doing on the part of the officer, he had not noticed that my complaint was about two officers one being the first Inspector I spoke to and also that he did an investigation without my evidence! He did admit that I had been the victim & I was advised to complain again. Both officers lied, twisted words, changed stories, made up stories and they were made to look as if they had done a good job. My complaint was then not upheld as there was no independent evidence (but yet there was, just not asked for) and they are thinking that my 'perception' is somehow at fault and not the officers! I'm currently waiting for my appeal to be heard but that will take up to 10-12 weeks even before they will look at it, as they are overwhelmed with complaints. I did finally send in my evidence with my appeal which was never asked for, but I had put in writing on two different occasions that I would supply my evidence to support my allegations. The PSD then started to make mistakes or chose to make mistakes and put in for dispensation to have my complaint written off even before any Inspector had investigated fully. I am finding it most disturbing that no solicitors seem interested in taking on my case. Maybe if I was well known like Mark Thomas the political activist or an MP things would be different today. Did I really need to be cautioned unlawfully for a solicitor to be willing to take on my case? This shouldn't be how it is! Are police officers allowed to commit crimes and then these crimes are then to be overlooked?

Re: the future of policing: trust and accountability
Posted by Anonymous (92.6.xx.xx) on Mon 22 Mar 2010 at 02:09
Oh, and ps - the CPS DO have a complaints procedure, clearly advertised on their website:
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Re: the future of policing: trust and accountability
Posted by Helen (212.183.xx.xx) on Mon 22 Mar 2010 at 11:57 [ Send Message | View Helen's Scratchpad | View Weblogs ]

You're quite right. I wonder if I misunderstood Ms Furniss, or if she was mistaken. I'll read the transcript when it's released and see if I can clarify.

Re-reading my notes, I think I may have been unclear on the different levels of complaint and appeal available. Anyone can make a complaint against the police, just as anyone can make a complaint against CPS. Does CPS have the equivalent of the IPCC - an "independent" review and appeals board? (I realise that the IPCC's independence is highly questionable!)

I think that when she mentioned judicial reviews, she was talking about appeals against IPCC decisions. So someone complains to the police; the complaint is referred to the IPCC. The IPCC finds the complaint unsubstantiated. The complainant appeals against that decision. At this point the case goes to judicial review, who assess the IPCC's decision to see if it was fair. A lot of appeals are successful, and Jane Furniss remarked at one point that the process of recording cases in such a way as to facilitate a potential judicial review was a nuisance.

Re: the future of policing: trust and accountability
Posted by Anonymous (92.1.xx.xx) on Thu 1 Apr 2010 at 03:04
Re. the IPCC appeals, in my case, I complained to IPCC. They referred it to the DPS of the local force, who "investigated" the complaint, and found it unsubstantiated. I appealed against that decision to the IPCC. They "investigated" the investigation I had appealed against (not my original complaint), and found it adequate and upheld the police decision not to uphold my complaint. If I wish to now pay ten grand or more to take it to Judicial Review, that's upto me, but the IPCC will do no more and have basically told me to whistle for it. I wish I could sue them.

Re: the future of policing: trust and accountability
Posted by Anonymous (92.1.xx.xx) on Thu 1 Apr 2010 at 15:25
Just to clarify - if you appeal to IPCC against an investigation into a complaint, and they do not uphold your appeal, the case does not automatically go to Judicial Review. JR is a legal process that the victim has to instigate within 3 months of the decision, at a cost to the complainant in the tens of thousands of pounds. It is the last legal resort for people who have been failed by the IPCC and who are lucky enough to have the money to take matters further. It is not an intrinsic part of the process, it is a sign that the process is not working. A competent authority should not be leaving itself open to legal challenges which, as you say, are largely successful. Successful Judical Reviews by the wealthy few are an indicator of flawed and unlawful decision making on the part of IPCC.

Re: The future of policing: trust and accountability
Posted by Anonymous (89.242.xx.xx) on Mon 23 Aug 2010 at 07:02
Its a waste of public money to make a complaint I only do because to have a record becuse either they dont answer u or if they do its adialogu when i phone poloce about haresements and threaths some not all because there is some good officers out there but wwhen i tell thm what there collogese treathed they clamp up.Its a Joke They should have anew slogan on thiere leaflets U CAn complaint it wont get you anywhere. I suggest to Mr Cameron withdraw there funding save some money because they are not independent.I was locked up on false allegations by a neigbour for 11 hous The magestrates desmissed the case Inadequate poloce investigations. I believ these was because I was going through a poloce complaint they could not conten themselves. If someone comes to yoyr door thrwathens u I was the one arrested ieven some of there own officers could not believe it, all Iwas gwetting from investigating officer u got yo move. I suppose to forget.
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