IOPC Failures : Watchdogs, Wolves, or Paper Tigers?

Some stark statistics made headlines in the Guardian newspaper recently: Fewer than 1 in 10 Police officers found to have a case to answer for gross misconduct actually end up being dismissed from the service.

Out of 641 officers in England & Wales ‘charged’ with gross misconduct between 2015 – 2020 following an investigation by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), a mere 54 (8.4%) were dismissed.

Out of a further 848 officers whom the IOPC held had a case to answer for the less serious charge of misconduct, less than half (363) were ultimately found guilty.

Out of 391 cases over the same 5-year period in which the IOPC felt that criminal prosecution of an Officer was warranted, only 69 individuals were actually prosecuted and a mere 22 found guilty (with 4 receiving custodial sentences).

One of the key drivers of this disparity between IOPC findings and eventual outcomes is, in my opinion, the fact that the IOPC is in practice little more than an ‘advisory’ body – they are certainly not ‘judge or jury’ when it comes to Police misconduct; that role falls on the shoulders of internal Police disciplinary panels (if the recommended charges actually get to a Hearing, as there are numerous methods by which Police officers, assisted by their union – the Police Federation – and/or by the support, tacit or otherwise, of their Force’s Professional Standards unit can avoid or delay hearings, or even have the level of charge recommended by the IOPC ‘watered down’).

I have long sounded the alarm that the IOPC, despite its grandiose title, is often just a paper tiger in practice, without the authority – or indeed, in many cases the desire – to truly hold rogue Officers to account. My views were echoed last week by Katrina Ffrench, former CEO of StopWatch, an organisation campaigning for fair policing, who told the Guardian that the figures were “indicative of the IOPC’s inability to hold the police to account in any meaningful way.”

This has very damaging consequences on the ability of individuals and communities to trust that ‘the system’ is on their side when it comes to Police misbehaviour – reinforcing the belief that the Police often have divided loyalties between enforcing the law and protecting their brothers-in-arms from legitimate criticism, all too often skewed in favour of the latter – and perpetuating a sense of anger and unresolved grievance in those who have faced injustice at the hands of the Police.

Also quoted in the Guardian report was a former Metropolitan Police Chief Superintendent, Victoria Olisa, who observed that police officers can often “run rings around IOPC investigators”.

Ms Olisa’s experience with the IOPC is mirrored by my own.

  • Take, for example, the case of my client Bryan Allden. As I highlighted in my blog reporting on the £358K damages award I won for Bryan in November last year, the IPCC (forerunner of the IOPC, but don’t be fooled by the change of name into thinking there is any fundamental difference between the current ‘watchdog’ and its predecessor: they basically just re-arranged the letters of its acronym) concluded that the gratuitous overhead baton strike unleashed by PC Knowles upon Bryan, which caused a severe fracture to Bryan’s hand “could just as easily have…resulted in a fatal injury.” Yet West Midlands Police were allowed by the IPCC to let the officer off the hook, by ‘sanctioning’ him only with ‘management action’ in the form of a ‘first aid course’, rather than charging him with gross misconduct. It was exactly this behaviour by the IPCC/ West Midlands Police, rather than the incident itself, which caused Bryan the most mental anxiety and upset over the years that followed – in Bryan’s own words “the savage attacker was protected, not punished for his actions.”
  • Or alternatively, another case involving West Midlands Police ‘calling the shots’ with the IPCC; my client Haydn (aged 12 years old) was assaulted by an Officer, who threw him to the ground, causing  him to injure his back on a concrete surface. The officer denied this allegation, saying that he had reached out to take hold of Haydn, but that Haydn had (coincidentally) fallen spontaneously at that point. It appeared that the Officer may then have threatened Haydn with arrest, possibly as a way of intimidating him into not making a complaint prior to his mother arriving on the scene. The IPCC recommended that the officer involved should attend a misconduct hearing, however West Midlands Police unilaterally rejected this, and proposed to sanction the officer with ‘management action’ only…again the IPCC backed down, and complied with the wishes of the Force. It appeared to me that this was largely because the IPCC were fearful that if they insisted on a misconduct hearing without the co-operation of the Force, then it was very likely the officer would simply get off ‘scot free’ at the hearing, and hence they chose the lesser sanction, that would at least put some marker on the officer’s record. It is very regrettable that the Police watchdog should have to make such a compromise, but is sadly far from unusual.
  • Or the case of my client Susan who suffered the indignity of an officer trespassing in her home, and using force against her during a dispute with bailiffs that frankly, the officer should have stayed out of. The officer in question, a Sergeant with Nottinghamshire Police was originally referred to a meeting for ‘misconduct’ by his Force’s Professional Standards Department but the IOPC upheld my client’s appeal that his actions surely equated to ‘gross misconduct’, and in May 2018 directed that the Sergeant face a misconduct hearing. At that hearing, in early 2019, the Sergeant was found guilty of gross misconduct and sacked; unfortunately, he appealed and, after his appeal, was granted a second misconduct hearing in November 2019. Once again the verdict was gross misconduct and dismissal from the Police service; however, that still wasn’t the end of the matter – the Sergeant appealed again, and was successfully reinstated to the Force, albeit with a “final written warning” on his disciplinary record. In disciplinary terms it seems that some Police Officers have more lives than a cat, no matter how strong the evidence against them, and irrespective of the findings and directions of the IOPC. In response to the claim which I have subsequently brought against Nottinghamshire Police on behalf of Susan, the Force have admitted liability for the trespass, false imprisonment and assault and battery perpetrated upon Susan by the Sergeant – but he nevertheless remains at this time a serving Police Officer.

These problems are exacerbated, in my opinion, by the fact that the so-called ‘Independent’ Office of Police Conduct is far too cosy and intermeshed in its relationship with the Police; almost 30% of all IOPC staff come from a Police background and an even greater proportion of senior investigators (40%) were former Officers.

And the disappointing statistics highlighted above do not include all those misconduct investigations – the vast majority in fact – which are not conducted directly by the IOPC, but are rather ‘delegated’ to the local Professional Standards Department (almost invariably the Professional Standards Department of the Force complained about, not even an ‘independent’ Force). Investigations of which the IOPC ‘washes its hands’  can in fact include such serious matters as broken limbs, life-changing dog bite injuries and armed Police raids on the home of an innocent family.

Interestingly, this very week the IOPC has also come in for scathing criticism from Stu Berry, the chair of the Police Federation of Greater Manchester Police – which represents the ‘best interests’ of serving officers. Mr Berry condemned the IOPC in the following strident terms –

“The IOPC is a state- sanctioned risk to the welfare of police officers and their families in its current form, despite the new name. It was previously the Independent Police Complaints Commission and nothing has altered. This rampant and unchecked misuse of power must change. It has to change.”

His criticism was echoed by Police Federation National Conduct and Performance Lead Phil Matthews, who speaking to the Police Oracle stated “Public trust in the system will erode if people do not think that complaints will be dealt with quickly.”

It appears that the major gripe which Mr Berry and Mr Matthews were expressing, was the length of time for which officers can remain ‘under investigation’, with accusations of misconduct potentially hanging over them for years – although I must call into question the histrionic language (“state sanctioned risk to officers and their families”) with which Mr Berry, in particular, makes his case. Such language from those whose job it is, as Police Federation representatives, to play ‘defence’ for officers accused of misconduct, suggests to me that their criticism is really designed to undermine and weaken the standing of the IOPC, and warn the Government off from bolstering IOPC powers.   

And whilst of course my clients want misconduct investigations to be concluded quickly – I know of one involving the Metropolitan Police in which a legitimate complaint of racial profiling and wrongful detention dragged on for no less than 6 years – their greatest wish is for cases to be dealt with fairly; and all too often, as highlighted above, that is not at all their experience at the end of the process, no matter how long it takes.But the Police Federation, concentrating only on ‘looking after its own’, seem as deaf to the hurt and anger of ordinary people abused, mistreated and violated by the Police as was ex-PC, now convicted criminal Nick Musto, who when unleashing his third, gratuitous baton strike against my client Robert’s shattered leg bone, could apparently only hear the colleague whom Robert had inadvertently fallen upon ‘calling out for help’, and not Robert’s own screams of pain (which for the rest of us with ears to hear, were captured on a phone video made by a shocked member of the public).

So it seems that I and the Police Fed agree that ‘root and branch’ reform is essential for the IOPC; but our reasons why are totally polarised. Whereas many of my clients see an organisation which might as well bear the title “I Excuse PC”, Mr Berry and the Police Fed apparently see the IOPC as ‘wolves at the door’ of innocent officers and their families.

The purpose of the Police complaint system, as defined by the College of Policing in its 2017 guidelines is threefold –

  1. To maintain public confidence in and the reputation of the Police service
  1. To uphold high standards in policing and deter misconduct
  1. To protect the public

It is clear that to achieve such goals, although the speed of the process is a relevant factor, the key is to ensure fairness and transparency of the complaint investigation and a truly impartial outcome. It is my firm opinion that the current misconduct regime falls very far short of such a standard, far too many times.

My answer to this problem would be in the first instance, in opposition to the view of Stu Berry, to grant the IOPC more power (and commensurate funding) to allow it to have initial oversight of all Police complaints (rather than them being filtered through the local Forces) and to rest the final adjudication process in panels convened and supervised by the IOPC itself. Secondly, and of equal importance, I would dilute the links between the IOPC and the Police profession by ensuring that the IOPC recruited staff, investigators and advisors heavily from those communities which do not have such a cosy relationship with the Police as retired officers, and those such as myself who have experience as advocates for justice on behalf of the victims of Police misconduct.

Then, perhaps, we might hit a hat-trick.

Author: iaingould

Actions against the police solicitor (lawyer) and blogger.