As I have made clear many times before, the civil justice system in this country has to do a disproportionate share of the ‘heavy lifting’ when it comes to holding police officers to account for their misdeeds, and regulating the balance of power between Police and public, because of the failure not only of the Police to police themselves but of our supposed Police ‘Watchdog’ the IOPC (Independent Office of Police Conduct) to show any real teeth on all but the rarest of occasions.
The fact of the matter is that this supposed Watchdog is often more like a sheepdog whose flock have run rings around him and then locked him in a pen.
What price a fair and proper complaint system in this country ensuring Police accountability and enforced by a regulator with real steel? Sadly, I am compelled to tell client after client that they can neither have faith in the impartiality and efficiency of the Police complaint system nor invest hope and reliance in appeals to the IOPC who, when not finding reasons to side with the Police, still seem to be able to offer even those whom they consider to have legitimate complaints luke-warm support at best, amidst a culture of delay and apparent deference towards the Police.
A classic example of this is a case in which I have recently been instructed, by a client who I will identify for the purposes of this blog by the name of ‘Anthony’.
Anthony made a complaint about an Officer of Greater Manchester Police following an incident which occurred in July 2020.
In October 2021 the ever-so-slowly turning wheels of the complaint investigation conducted by GMP’s Professional Standard Branch (PSB) delivered to Anthony the ‘outcome letter’ of the Appropriate Authority, Detective Superintendent Keeley. The good news was that DS Keeley determined that the Officer had a case to answer for gross misconduct in relation to honesty and integrity and discreditable conduct.
However, DS Keeley also rejected significant portions of my client’s complaint, determining that the officer did not have any case to answer in respect of use of force or equality and diversity (discrimination).
Although the Officer should now face a Gross Misconduct Hearing which could result in her dismissal, Anthony was bitterly disappointed that the charges against that officer did not encompass the racial discrimination and excessive force which Anthony felt he had been subjected to by the Officer.
As this was the outcome of an internal Police investigation, the Appropriate Authority advised Anthony of his right to “request a review” from the IOPC if he did not agree with his findings.
At the same time however, DS Keeley made it clear that Anthony would not be supplied with a copy of the Complaint Investigation Report on the basis that it contained evidence which would be heard at the Gross Misconduct Hearing. Anthony was informed that he would be entitled to a copy of the report only at the conclusion of those proceedings.
Anthony was therefore left in the farcical and Kafkaesque situation of being told that he had, in effect, a right of appeal against a report which he was not allowed to see. I am sure most of us would agree that it is difficult to argue against evidence and findings if you do not in fact know what that evidence and those findings are. Anthony had simply been informed of the very last ‘punch line’ of the report and no attempt had been made by Professional Standards or DS Keeley to explain to him any of the reasons for the rejection of more than half of his complaint.
Anthony, accordingly had to appeal ‘blind’ to the IOPC, bitterly disappointed by the lack of support and communication he had received and understandably feeling that his case was not being taken seriously, particularly his allegation of racial discrimination.
Anthony’s review request was received by the IOPC in November 2021 (within a few weeks of DS Keely’s decision) but it was not until July 2022 that he received a decision letter from the IOPC.
The good news was that the IOPC Caseworker upheld Anthony’s application for review on the basis that the GMP investigation into his complaint “was not reasonable and proportionate on the grounds of information”.
What did that bureaucratic-jargon phrase mean? The IOPC in reviewing the case had of course been made privy to the Complaint Investigation Report which Anthony himself had been denied sight of.
The IOPC Caseworker concluded:
“I am in no doubt that the response that you have received from GMP is not sufficient to ensure that you have all the information you need and can understand what it means…this has, it may be reasonably argued, adversely impacted on your ability to submit an informed application for review”.
That last sentence is, in my opinion, probably the epitome of stating the completely obvious in the most delicate, diffident and wishy-washy way.
The IOPC decision maker went on to comment that:
“I am not sufficiently satisfied from the information in front of me at this time, that GMP has adequately considered all of the available alternatives to ensure that you are as fully informed as possible in the circumstances”.
Indeed, I would describe the way that GMP’s Professional Standards Branch handled this issue as displaying all the typical hallmarks of arrogance, obstructiveness and lack of concern or compassion for the Complainant that is habitual in Police complaint investigations.
So, what would the IOPC now do – not only to set right Anthony’s situation (so he could be properly provided with the information he is entitled to) but also to send a message to GMP Professional Standards that this sort of behaviour will not be tolerated in the future?
The answer I am afraid, was a whimper rather than a bang.
Cap in hand, the IOPC Caseworker made no firm directions but simply begged GMP to give “consideration” to the “feasibility” of providing Anthony with a “redacted version” of the Investigation Report or – watering the request down even further – merely an ‘outcome letter’ which contains more information.
This was an abject failure by the IOPC to set any firm course of action; rather they simply offered ‘recommendations’ for ‘consideration’.
The IOPC signed off their involvement with the phrase, “We are committed to providing the highest possible standard of customer service” – a bog standard and essentially meaningless phrase when it comes at the end of a decision letter in which the IOPC appear to be saying to Anthony that although they certainly agree with him, they will do nothing to force GMP to comply other than to send Professional Standards a diffidently worded ‘begging’ letter.
It should be transparent to all, that in a healthy and open Police complaint system the balance of power would run in the opposite direction and Professional Standards would ‘jump to attention’ when the IOPC upbraided them and issued definitive instructions for a just and fair resolution of the Complaint process.
Instead, one is left with the distinct impression that both the Police and the IOPC know that this particular Watchdog is little more than a poodle.
So what happened next? Have GMP learned their lesson and in good faith taken the criticism levelled at them by the IOPC to heart and sought to ensure that Anthony is given as much information as possible, such that he can now reasonably and meaningfully appeal their decision to reject over half of his complaint?
I am sure you have already guessed the answer to that question.
The Detective Constable who wrote the Investigation Report confirmed within four days of the IOPC decision that she would not be releasing any further information to Anthony unless GMP’s Data Protection Unit instructed her to do so.
In other words; here is another bureaucratic hoop Anthony, please jump through it.
The likelihood of what will happen next is that, just as GMP’s Professional Standards Branch are now purporting to defer to their Data Protection Unit, the Data Protection Unit will hide behind the proposed Misconduct proceedings against the Officer, coupled with the expressed desire of PSB not to release the report, and will therefore refuse to do so until the Misconduct Hearing is complete and it is too late for Anthony to lodge any meaningful appeal against the Complaint outcome.
The IOPC have exhausted their usefulness and are extremely unlikely to intervene further. Anthony’s only recourse would then be a separate appeal to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) or to the Courts themselves by way of Judicial Review.
None of this would or should be necessary if only the IOPC was fit for purpose; instead people like Anthony are left to count the cost of a depressingly dysfunctional Police complaints regime.