Police Apologies: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

Sometimes the best thing to say, is nothing at all.

This is a message seemingly lost on a lot of Police forces when it comes to the thorny issue of ‘apologising’.

Forces seem to acknowledge that in principle they should apologise; but then find themselves, out of pride, unable to do so in practice, or do so only through gritted teeth.

Others use the word ‘apology’ as a form of passive- aggressive weaponry, in contexts where they are paying lip-service to the word – presumably as a public relations exercise – whilst not actually apologising at all: indeed, quite often their supposed apology is closer to being an insult heaped upon the complainant’s injury.

Take for example the following excerpts from a complaint investigation report which one of my clients received from the Metropolitan Police this month:

“Firstly, I would like to apologise on behalf of the Metropolitan Police Service about the name used in regards to your son … I believe the wrong surname was used and referred to within the 1st report that was provided to you.” – This is an actual and legitimate apology, albeit for a relatively minor error.

“On behalf of the Metropolitan Police Service, I would like to apologise for the fact that you and your family have had to go through this frightening experience, especially given the fact that you were all in your home and had not committed any criminal offence.” – Any suggestion that this was an ‘apology’ was undermined by the conclusion of the complaint investigation which was that, in the opinion of the Police, the frightening experience they put my client and her family through was an entirely reasonable and proportionate one, and involved no Police wrongdoing.

“On behalf of the Metropolitan Police Service I apologise for the fact that it was necessary to search your address and I fully understand how this intrusion would have added to the upset caused…” – An apology must be something more than a mere expression of sympathy for somebody else’s bad luck: it must involve real contrition and an admission of fault on the part of the ‘apologiser’: here there was again no acceptance of any fault on the part of the MPS.

“On behalf of the Metropolitan Police Service I apologise for the fact that you believe that your son was racially profiled and that because your son is black, the police chose to use a disproportionate and excessive armed response.” – This is again not an apology (for the report then purports to exonerate all officers involved of racial bias/ prejudice) and indeed appears to be less even than an expression of ‘third party sympathy’ (I’m sorry that happened to you) and more a species of gaslighting: far more provocative when you think about what it is saying in the wider context of the Police response, which is really this: “I don’t apologise for the fact that you wrongly believe your son was racially profiled, but I will taunt, mock or otherwise belittle you by using that word in a context where we both know it’s not meant, and is in fact inferring that your judgment is wrong/ impaired or that you are overly sensitive…”

On the face of those statements, a casual observer might think that the Metropolitan Police Service had offered no fewer than four apologies to my client. In the wider context of the report however, it is absolutely clear that only in regards to the first statement was a real apology being offered, and that the powerful word “sorry”, which can do so much good, both in the context of repairing harm done to an individual who has suffered Police misconduct, and in building wider public and community trust, was on three occasions being taken in vain.

Sorry Is the Hardest Word

This brings me back on to the subject of my client Brett Chamberlain’s case, about which I have previously blogged. Brett received a significant amount of compensation, plus legal costs, in recognition of the fact that he had been unlawfully arrested by Devon & Cornwall Police, a claim which it was necessary for him to bring after his initial complaint had been wrongly rejected (with the Police even going as far at that stage of still accusing him of a non-existent crime of ‘bilking’).

Shamefully, after agreeing to apologise to Brett as a key part of the settlement deal, Devon & Cornwall have failed to do so, hiding behind the following sham apology issued by the Deputy Chief Constable-

The force has the expectation of the highest standards from its officers and staff and we are sorry that 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.”

As can be noted, if the three words I have highlighted were deleted, the message would at least constitute an actual, if somewhat lukewarm, apology; with those words as written, however, it is rendered not an apology at all.

Although I pressed Devon & Cornwall for a full and proper letter of apology, they have maintained their stance, out of what I can only assume is pride and petulance: sorry seems to be such a difficult word for them that I am drawn to question whether there are actually any grown-ups in the room, on the Police side of this debate.

Brett himself has adopted a far more mature and reasonable approach to this issue than the entire institution of Devon & Cornwall Police, from front line officers to senior management, via the legal department, seem capable of, as he recently wrote to me in the following terms-

“Funny how they’re not too fussed about dishing out £5K but a letter of apology is just too much to ask…It’s not really an apology when it’s forced out of them anyway. There’s little to no chance of reforming the Police when they can’t even admit their mistakes in a relatively trivial case. That’s why guys like you do a great job of holding them to account…”

On many occasions, it is my job to teach the Police what the law actually says, and what the parameters of their power within it truly are. Is it also necessary for me to teach them that professional communication and honest dealings should not involve the use of weasel words or doublespeak phrases as barricades to hide behind? Sorry should mean sorry, Chief Constable – and please don’t insult us all by saying it, when you don’t mean it – or indeed when intending the opposite of the word, you mendaciously add insult to injury.

Say sorry honestly, or not at all.

Author: iaingould

Actions against the police solicitor (lawyer) and blogger.

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