Why Can’t The Police Apologise For Wrongdoing?

When is “sorry” the hardest word to say ? – When you are a Police Officer, or so long experience has taught me.

Common decency, professional integrity and even pragmatism often seem to be thrown out of the window when it comes to apologies from the Police, who will fight claims and complaints tooth and nail to avoid having to apologise – even where a prompt and fulsome apology could have saved everyone involved a great deal of heartache and expense.

I blogged recently about the case of my client Brett Chamberlain, who was arrested in ridiculous circumstances because Tesco had refused to accept the payment he offered for his petrol by way of a commemorative coin, which was entirely legal tender.

After arresting Brett, and then contemptuously dismissing his legitimate complaint (and his request for deletion of the arrest record), Devon and Cornwall Police rapidly backtracked after I presented them with Brett’s civil claim, and agreed to pay him compensation of £5,000 and to issue an apology.

A Broken Promise

The letter that was subsequently sent to Brett by Devon & Cornwall’s Deputy Chief Constable Jim Colwell, in fact said merely the following (under the heading “Letter of Apology”) –

I have been made aware of the claim for compensation that has arisen out of your arrest on 27 July 2020.

The force has the expectation of the highest standards from its officers and staff and we are sorry you feel these have not been upheld in this matter. The force has taken on board any lessons which can be learned to ensure it continues to offer the best possible service to the public.

I have also been made aware that you have been offered and accepted compensation in full and final settlement to conclude this matter.

I wish you the best for the future.

There is, in fact, no apology whatsoever contained within that communication, which appears to be a ‘cut and paste’ standard letter. An apology requires an acceptance of fault on the part of the wrongdoer, otherwise it is merely an expression of ‘sympathy’. DCC Colwell’s letter fails to demonstrate any such acceptance; the DCC acknowledges only that my client feels that the ‘highest standards’ of the Force have not been upheld, and is entirely silent as to his own view of the matter. Indeed, the implication is that the DCC does not think those standards have been breached: if this is not the case, he should say so.

This failure to acknowledge the wrongdoing of Sergeant Attwood (compounding the earlier rejection of my client’s legitimate complaint), is then perpetuated by the DCC’s suggestion that “any lessons which can be learned” will be taken on board – he does not even accept that there are lessons to be learned from these events.  

Brett was induced to settle his claim in part by the offer of an apology. In fact, no apology has been forthcoming, and thus as matters stand, he and I have been misled by the Force, and I have made it clear that if this letter is not altered so that it actually offers an apology for what was done to Mr Chamberlain, then we will be lodging a complaint against the Deputy Chief Constable.

A Proper Apology

In another recent case which I concluded, involving a substantial payment of damages from West Midlands Police in respect of their Officer’s use of force (including threat of a taser) against my 12 year old client, a proper apology was made, and reads as follows-

Dear _______,   I write in relation to an incident on 19 February 2017 when you were stopped by PC H____ whilst riding your bicycle. At the time you were 12 years old.   It is accepted that PC H____’s approach to this incident did not reflect the level of decision-making it should have done, and that his performance of his duties fell far short of the standard which is expected.   I am aware that this incident caused you physical as well as psychological injury. I accept that you have suffered a significant negative impact on your lifestyle and schooling over the last 4 years as a consequence of your anxiety reaction to these events.   I also acknowledge that you and your parents felt deeply let down by our complaint investigation process.   West Midlands Police would like to offer you an unreserved apology for all distress and injury which you have suffered, and trust that with this apology and the settlement of your claim, your trust and confidence in West Midlands Police can be restored.   I would like to repeat our previous offer to you and your parents to engage further with WMP, including by meeting the Force Autism Lead, PS D_____, who runs our Public Order Training Centre. You would be very welcome to visit the Centre, and PS D_____ would be happy to discuss with you and your parents how this incident could have been handled better.    

This second example, which included an acknowledgement of and sensitivity towards my client’s autism, and a genuine offer to engage with him and his parents so as to ‘learn lessons’, should be the norm rather than the exception.

Instead, the majority of Police ‘apology’ letters which I see are more akin to that which has been offered to Brett Chamberlain: clearly given through ‘gritted teeth’ if not, indeed, passive- aggressive in tone or full-blown exercises in “double-speak”.

Rather than apologising, such missives seem almost deliberately designed to add insult to injury, or to advertise the fact that the Police are ‘not really sorry’. The prickly pride of the Police profession is what is most often on display here, rather than any real humility or contrition.

The Police it seems to me, are far too willing to put the public’s money where their own mouths are, when it comes to refusing to say ‘sorry’ – or saying it with fingers openly crossed.

The Courts cannot, of course, order any one litigant to apologise to another, but a great many claims and complaints could be resolved with significantly reduced expenditure of time and money, if only the Police used that five letter word more often, and more honestly.

Author: iaingould

Actions against the police solicitor (lawyer) and blogger.

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