Blog: End the misery for officers, police watchdog urged

23 November 2018

Conduct Lead Phill Matthews

Conduct Lead Phill Matthews

Federation Conduct Lead Phill Matthews takes a look at the draconian disciplinary process and suggests a solution to end the stress for officers

Imagine being sent for medical tests and then waiting seven years to get the results. Yet that’s the type of wait causing unimaginable stress and trauma being put on our members when they are being investigated by the police watchdog, the Independent Office for Police Complaints (IOPC).

For investigations of six, seven, even ten years are not uncommon...the list of investigations with excessive timescales is endless, which is why we are calling for a statutory time limit for bringing disciplinary procedures against police officers.

For too long the IPCC (Independent Police Complaints Commission), its successor the IOPC, and some Professional Standards Departments have been allowed to let officers languish needlessly and unreasonably while investigations progress at a glacial pace.

While coroners’ inquests can add some delay in cases involving deaths, in the majority of instances there is little or no acceptable explanation for why they have taken so long. And at present there is no way of holding investigating authorities to account for how long they spend on the process.

The most contentious cases are often the ones that end up in dispute, in particular when the IOPC directs forces to hold hearings. We cannot state that these never end in findings against officers, but we can point to a recent FOI request showing that a staggering 71% of all Directions in the past five years ended without any type of finding against the officers concerned.

This obviously highlights the waste of time, effort and money currently spent pursuing cases in an untimely fashion, all the time needlessly putting the officers concerned through a protracted hell. In extreme cases officers have been prevented from retiring and left unable to move on with their lives or a new career.

The impact on these officers cannot be underestimated; it has a profound effect: mentally, physically and often financially, not just for themselves but also for the families they need to lean on. Their lives can spiral downhill and the evidence shows that the longer these investigations continue, the health and wellbeing of the accused officer deteriorates rapidly. In extreme cases, officers have been driven to attempt suicide.

If they are placed on restricted duties or suspended, not only will their fellow colleagues be put under additional pressures because of gaps in the frontline but can also suffer from loss of morale. And if the officer concerned eventually returns, they will need re-training.

Which is patently unfair. This does not happen in any other profession, which is why we are calling for an overhaul of the system to bring in a time limit. If a case is worth progressing, then it should be done swiftly, for all involved.  Not just for the officers but also for the complainants and their relatives who face the same issues and are left short-changed by seeing no end in sight and no explanation forthcoming.

We believe the IOPC is trying to address this, and have seen some evidence of progress; we have been lobbying the IPCC since before and during its transition to the IOPC. But although there are signs of a shift from punishment as the automatic default sanction to a more progressive culture of performance and learning, we do not believe that any positive development can be left purely to chance.

Drastic reform or legislation is what is needed to halt this drift and we would like to see timelines imposed in line with other statutory instruments; for example, summary-only cases like most traffic offences and common assaults have a six-month limit on proceedings being brought. It cannot be right that the police service is restricted to six months to bring the motoring case to court, yet that same motorist has no limit to complaining about the officer; it could be days, weeks, months or even years later.

Similarly, in any workplace employees have only three months less a day to bring an employment tribunal against their employer for discrimination matters or dismissals; Judicial Reviews have to be lodged within three months; Human Rights claims must be made within a year; and even in civil claims for personal injury or death, court proceedings have to be started within three years.

So we would argue that 12 months is a more than adequate length of time for any non-criminal investigation to be satisfactorily concluded, particularly as all the witnesses are usually already known. There is also often CCTV, body worn video or other documentary evidence that is already in police possession.

Of course, as police officers, none of us want to see the small number of bad apples escape justice. We genuinely do not want them in the service.

But to uphold this draconian regime which is blighting so many lives is not only unacceptable, it is inhumane. Which is why next week the Federation’s discipline experts across the country will be debating the matter and calling on the Home Office and legislators to act now and put a halt to this practice. In our view, justice delayed is justice denied – for everybody.