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Wiltshire Police Federation

Police misconduct: Watchdog 'bringing wrong cases'

17 January 2019

BBC News

Only five police officers in England and Wales were dismissed in the last three years following misconduct cases ordered by the police watchdog.

The BBC also found in two-thirds of the 48 cases pursued by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) "gross misconduct" charges were not proven.

The Police Federation said the IOPC was bringing the "wrong cases" and officers often had to wait years to be cleared.

The IOPC said its approach had been legally tested and was "appropriate".

The watchdog has the power to order hearings over allegations of gross misconduct when a force refuses to hold them - they're known as "directed" hearings.

Figures provided to the BBC after a request under the Freedom of Information Act show that in the three years to October 2018 there were 48 completed directed hearings across 19 police forces.

In 33 cases gross misconduct, the most serious disciplinary charge that can be levelled, was not proven.

Of the 15 police officers against whom charges were upheld five were sacked and 10 received other sanctions.

Some 21 police forces didn't carry out any directed hearings - and three constabularies, Essex, Sussex and Wiltshire, failed to provide information.

An officer with Nottinghamshire Police who was cleared at an IOPC-directed hearing after a near six-year investigation told BBC News the process was a "nightmare".

Catherine, who asked to be referred to only by her first name because of the sensitive nature of her work, was accused of using excessive force against a pregnant woman who'd been arrested and taken into custody in July 2011.

Although three officers were disciplined over the incident, it took until May 2017 for the charges to be dropped against Catherine.

The police constable, who has spent almost 19 years in the police service, said the uncertainty over what would happen to her and whether she'd lose her job had held her career back.

'Unrealistic expectations'

"I couldn't move to a different department, couldn't leave the force, couldn't look to move to a new house or spend money due to the fact that I didn't know what was going to happen," she said.

The IOPC, formerly the Independent Police Complaints Commission, apologised and admitted their handling of her case had been "unacceptable".

"I knew in my heart of hearts I'd done nothing wrong," Catherine said.

Phill Matthews, conduct lead for the Police Federation of England and Wales, which represents 120,000 officers, said the legal test used by the IOPC to determine if a misconduct case should go ahead needed reforming.

Sergeant Matthews said the process can leave officers "traumatised".

"The IPCC, and IOPC as is now, pursue the wrong cases and often have very little understanding of the evidence and give families and complainants unrealistic expectations," he said.

"The effect on the officers involved is sometimes catastrophic. They can be suspended, at massive public expense, which has a knock on effect on morale for whole shifts of officers, or placed on restrictions."

The legal test

The legal test, known as the 'case to answer' test, is whether a disciplinary panel could, on the basis of the evidence available, make a finding of misconduct or gross misconduct.

It is a lower threshold than the 'balance of probabilities' test applied by a disciplinary panel and lower than the 'realistic prospect of conviction' test used by the Crown Prosecution Service to determine whether to bring criminal proceedings.

The 'case to answer' test is enshrined in legislation and the IOPC said it would be "unlawful" for them to ignore or raise the threshold upheld by the High Court.

"We know the case to answer test is low but it has been repeatedly tested through judicial reviews and found to be appropriate," a spokeswoman said.

The Home Office said it was "inevitable" there'd be a 'case to answer' against some officers who were later cleared of misconduct but added that it was implementing reforms to ensure a "consistent" approach to the way the test was applied.

Policing Minister Nick Hurd said reforms, due for implementation this year, improve how misconduct hearings are prepared and conducted.