Policing The Police: An Insider’s Guide To The Police Complaints System

On Friday 22 April 2022, in recognition of Stephen Lawrence Day, I was invited to give a talk on the police complaints system to students at Arden University.

The lecture has now been uploaded to YouTube and covers the following topics:

  • Introduction – Why policing oversight matters
  • The police complaints system: 1970s onwards
  • The murder of Stephen Lawrence on 22 April 1993
  • The work of modern policing oversight bodies
  • Examples of real investigations (sensitive content)
  • Corruption within the system
  • Conclusions

The End of the Independent Police Complaints Commission (April 2004 – January 2018)

Oversight of policing in England and Wales

On Monday 8 January 2018 the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) will cease to exist. In its place the new Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) will be established.

For my part I had planned to celebrate this momentous occasion by taking a much-needed week off work and heading to New York for a series of educational visits, lectures, receptions and social events, as a guest of my old law school (De Montfort University).

Sadly, Mother Nature had other plans! So after spending two days enjoying the sights and sounds of Heathrow Airport, here I am: back to reality and blogging about my employer on a Sunday. Life is good!

In all seriousness I am very proud to be employed by such an important and reputable organisation. Indeed, I pay tribute to the incredibly dedicated people I work with, who, like most public servants in our country, are overworked and underpaid for what they do. The smooth running of our society is reliant on hardworking and patriotic civil servants, who go above and beyond their call of duty every single day.

I have written this blog as a kind of personal tribute and potted history of the organisation that employed me. It is written solely in a private capacity. I do not speak for my employer and nobody should assume otherwise. I do, however, speak for myself, and my right to do so – as well as yours – is enshrined in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, as incorporated into the Human Rights Act 1998.

In this blog I shall talk about:

  • My current role and previous work around policing
  • The Police Complaints Board (PCB) and the Police Complaints Authority (PCA)
  • The murder of Stephen Lawrence and the Macpherson Report
  • Founding of the Independent Police Complaint Commission (IPCC)
  • The IPCC’s size and structure, its scope and operations, and its impact
  • IPCC investigations and criticism of its work
  • The new Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC)

Within my organisation I currently have a dual role: leading investigations into potential or alleged police wrongdoing; and heading up our national PCS Union branch, which means I lead a team of trade union officials, working to protect the jobs and interests of hundreds of union members. I also lead national pay negotiations for all staff annually.

Interestingly my career keeps bringing me back to policing in some form or another, although I have never actually served as a police officer.

When I was younger I did four years voluntary service as an Independent Custody Visitor in Leicester, where – as a member of the public – I would visit police stations randomly to check on the welfare of detained persons.

As a solicitor I have both taken actions against the police, and also worked on behalf of the Police Federation, to defend police officers. As a city councillor in Leicester I served on the Board of the Leicestershire Police Authority, where my biggest achievement was leading efforts to help save more than 200 local policing jobs. And then in late 2014 I accepted a job offer with the IPCC.

I think it’s fair to say most people will have heard of the Independent Police Complaints Commission and most people would have some idea of the high level role it played in the police complaints system.

On reflection I suppose it was the organisation’s unique and important function that appealed to me and made me to want to work for it.

I consider myself to have a healthy skepticism of authority. That is to say, I believe everyone in a position of power – be it police, politicians, the press, or any other professional for that matter – should be answerable for the way they work and exercise power, especially when it comes to affecting peoples’ lives.

There must be robust and transparent scrutiny of what powerful people do, especially if and when something goes wrong. Indeed, it is part and parcel of living in a functioning modern democracy, right up there with upholding the rule of law and having a free press.

In terms of the IPCC’s background there were two main predecessor organisations.

In the mid-1970s, following a series of scandals involving the Metropolitan Police – and a perceived lack of independence in the police complaints system – the Police (Complaints) Act of 1976 was passed, and on 1 June 1977 the Police Complaints Board was established.

Until the creation of this body, complaints against police forces were handled directly by forces themselves, although the Home Secretary could refer serious complaints to alternate forces.

The Brixton riots in 1981, and the subsequent Scarman report – which investigated allegations of police racism – increased societal pressure to reform the Police Complaints Board.

The Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1984 abolished the PCB and, in its place, the Police Complaints Authority (PCA) was established a year later, with increased powers to actively supervise internal investigations being run by police forces.

The logo of the Independent Police Complaints Commission

What these organisations lacked however – both the PCB and later the PCA – was the clout to robustly scrutinise police complaints, or even carry out independent investigations.

The Police Complaints Authority was replaced by the Independent Police Complaints Commission, which was formally created in 2004. In-fact it was established on April Fools’ Day to be precise! (No comment.)

The chain of events, which ultimately saw the creation of the IPCC, was arguably put into motion some 11 years earlier on the evening of Thursday 22 April 1993.

On that fateful night Stephen Lawrence, an 18-year-old black man from Lewisham, was attacked – along with his friend Duwayne Brooks – in what was a racially motivated act of violence, as they waited at a bus stop.

Stephen was stabbed twice, in the right collar bone and the left shoulder, and he sadly died of his injuries from massive blood loss. Following a catalogue of perceived failings by the Metropolitan Police, and as well as vocal public anger and political uproar, the then Home Secretary Jack Straw ordered an inquiry led by Sir William Macpherson.

The Macpherson Report, published in 1999, branded the Metropolitan Police Service as “institutionally racist”. The report made 70 recommendations and this included the setting up of a new ‘Independent Police Complaints Commission’.

It is fair to say then, that the IPCC was conceived in an atmosphere of societal discord and political wrangling. But it is also the case that big changes often have a contentious backstory. Something serious usually goes wrong for people to agree that something needs to change.

The key differences between the IPCC and its predecessor bodies were its size and structure, the scope of what it did, the way it operated, and its impact on policing. I’ll now expand a little in each of these areas.

In my opinion the best way to explain the structure of the outgoing IPCC is to think about it in the same way you would a school. In most schools there are two professional groups of people working alongside each other: teachers and governors.

In a similar way the IPCC had an operational structure, with staff members who ran the organisation and did the frontline work, just like teachers. It also had Commissioners – about a dozen or so – who were the public-facing administrators of the IPCC: holding the leadership to account and setting the direction of travel, not too dissimilar to school governors.

The only glitch with that analogy is that, unlike school governors, IPCC Commissioners were actively involved in making key decisions in investigations and appeals. And, if we were to expand the analogy somewhat, this was akin to school governors going into classrooms to teach lessons from time-to-time.

These blurred working practices within the IPCC perhaps serve to explain why, at least in part, the organisation had to undergo a major revamp.

Overall, the organisation – or at least its constituent parts, which shall continue working in the new structure – has surprisingly few staff for the important role that it plays throughout England and Wales. There are only about a thousand employees located across seven sites, with a Head Office in London, and then six further offices in Birmingham, Cardiff, Croydon, Sale, Wakefield and Warrington.

The core business of the IPCC insofar as the public is concerned – as well as policing professionals, politicians and the press – has been to oversee the police complaints system in England and Wales, and to increase public confidence in policing.

Referrals to the IPCC took a number of forms and, whilst members of the public sometimes got in touch directly, usually it was police forces which routinely referred themselves for scrutiny.

These were either voluntary referrals or mandatory referrals, depending on the seriousness of the matter. For example, all deaths and serious injury cases involving the police in any way required a mandatory referral.

Building on the remit of its predecessor organisation, the IPCC could choose to either supervise or manage a force’s internal investigation (into its own officers/staff). Complainants also had the right to appeal to the IPCC in order to have the outcome of their complaint reconsidered.

Perhaps the broadest new power given to the IPCC, upon its founding some 14 years ago, was that of carrying out independent investigations – run entirely by the organisation itself – and using its own investigators.

For ease of reference, and in simple terms, it’s best to imagine the system as a four-layered pyramid. The bottom layer was local investigations. These were low-level complaints that were investigated by forces themselves.

The second layer was supervised investigations. These were carried out by police forces themselves as well, but in accordance with the terms of reference set down by the IPCC.

The third layer was managed investigations. These were carried out by police forces, but under the direction and control of the IPCC. And finally, at the top of the pyramid, there were independent investigations carried out by the IPCC.

The vast majority of independent investigations were serious and sensitive cases and usually fell into one of three different categories: 1) serious complaints; 2) serious conduct cases – so for police officers this meant potential breaches of the Standards of Professional Behaviour (contained in the Police Conduct Regulations); and 3) serious injury and / or death, either involving the police or following police contact.

When an independent investigation was declared, and once the parameters were clearly defined, the IPCC and its investigators had ownership and jurisdiction.

Arguably in some ways the IPCC was a bit like a law enforcement agency, with its own set of powers, fully trained investigators and support staff, equipment and resources, interview rooms, fleet vehicles etc.

But in reality it only ever functioned as a civilian oversight body: monitoring the police complaints system at arm’s length from government, and run entirely independently of all police forces and law enforcement agencies.

I have always felt that the organisation’s leadership and staff were pretty well-grounded, taking their roles and responsibilities very seriously. I also believe that the IPCC has operated as a pre-eminent public body, keeping an eye on the state, and providing a tangible check-and-balance on the way that police power was exercised when dealing with citizens.

Of course the IPCC was not perfect. No organisation ever is. But it did have a set of core values by which the organisation and its people were meant to abide. These were: justice and human rights; independence; valuing diversity; integrity; and openness – indeed, it is in the spirit of openness that I have written this article!

Despite its good intentions however, the IPCC sometimes came in for criticism when things went wrong, or if its own staff overstepped the mark.

The organisation clearly had its wings clipped in the famous 2014 case of the IPCC v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire (and others). In that judgement, the Court of Appeal held that contrary to how the IPCC had been operating, it could no longer express conclusive findings on whether or not a police officer’s conduct had been unlawful and / or unreasonable.

So instead, the IPCC – and Lead Investigators like me – had to confine ourselves to stating only whether an officer had a case to answer for misconduct, or if a CPS referral needed to be made, rather than appearing to pass any sort of judgement.

Here we have an example of where a body that had been tasked with keeping the police in-check, also itself had to be kept in-check, by an independent judiciary upholding the rule of law.

In my view this merely serves to illustrate that any person or public body exercising power and authority has the potential to overstep the mark and exceed its remit, sometimes even unintentionally, which further proves my earlier point.

Now as we acknowledge the passing of the institution known as the IPCC, let’s look briefly at the future of the organisation, and the changes that lie ahead.

Firstly, as we have seen from the inception of the PCB in 1977, to the PCA in 1985, and then later the IPCC in 2004: the trend is steadily upwards when it comes to increased public scrutiny of state power – as personified by the police.

The new Independent Office for Police Conduct will have greater powers and a bigger remit than the outgoing IPCC. This is not entirely surprising bearing in mind the expanding size of the state, catering to an ever-increasing and diverse population.

In 2017, another small organisation was incorporated into the organisation’s remit, in that the IPCC began regulating the Gangmasters Licensing Authority.

This was in addition to the IPCC’s existing role in investigating serious complaints against HM Revenue and Customs, the National Crime Agency, Police and Crime Commissioners, and Home Office special enforcement staff, not to mention the 43 police force areas of England and Wales, and other specialist police forces also.

The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) shall come into existence on Monday 8 January 2018. The IOPC will have a range of new powers, including the power to present cases at disciplinary hearings, and the power to proactively call-in matters that it wants to investigate, rather than just waiting for matters to be referred in.

One of the other big changes taking place in the new IOPC will be the removal of all Commissioners – the aforementioned public-facing governors – and the move towards a single operating structure and line of accountability.

Incorporated into the IOPC operating model will be new Regional Directors for every English region and a Director for Wales, and as well a new Director General instead of a Chief Executive.

So it’s clear there are many big changes in the pipeline.

Some 40 years after the first public body was established, to look into complaints against the police, we are set to see a bigger, emboldened, more powerful and proactive regulatory agency, scrutinising the work of the police, and other public bodies.

This is what Parliament voted for, in the public interest, and I think it is a good thing.

In-fact, I would go further and say that in addition to the general public, all policing professionals should want to see a new regulator like the IOPC. It is in the interests of decent hardworking people, of every background, to want to have high quality, transparent and constructive oversight of their profession.

As a solicitor by background myself, I always welcomed seeing the Solicitors Regulations Authority stepping in to root out solicitors who had unlawfully taken client monies, or completely failed to adhere to client instructions. I suspect most police officers and staff would take a similar view in respect of their own profession.

In closing, I wanted to take a moment to mention a particular police officer who really stood out to me over the last year, and no doubt to countless others.

His name was PC Keith Palmer and he was a 48-year-old police constable serving with the Metropolitan Police Service. He had a wife, named Michelle, and a 5-year-old daughter.

In April 2016 PC Palmer was assigned to the Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection Group. Less than a year later, on 22 March 2017, as PC Palmer stood guard protecting the parliamentary estate – the very heart of our democracy – a fascist Islamist with warped beliefs went on a rampage, killing four pedestrians whilst driving a vehicle at high speed along Westminster Bridge.

The terrorist crashed his car into the parliamentary perimeter fence, before abandoning it, and running into New Palace Yard, attempting to access Westminster Palace itself.

As most people understandably ran from the danger, PC Palmer stood up to it, taking the brunt of the violence. PC Palmer lost his life that day, but his heroic efforts slowed down the attacker, and almost certainly saved the lives of other people.

We owe a huge debt of gratitude to PC Palmer, and countless other men and women like him – both civilian and military – without whom we would not be able to enjoy the rights and freedoms that we have.

I think it is incumbent on us all never to take those freedoms for granted, and never to lose sight of the fundamental pillars that make up British democracy, such as the rule of law – and holding power accountable in the public interest.

Leicester hosts national junior lawyers meeting

As President of the Leicestershire Junior Lawyers Division, I was delighted to welcome delegates from across England and Wales to Leicester this weekend, as the city played host to a meeting of the National Junior Lawyers Division.

Putting Leicester on the mapAround 40 representatives from junior lawyer groups across the country met at Leicester Town Hall on Saturday 5 October for a special 1-day conference; the first of its kind in the city.

Attendees discussed the future of the legal profession and a variety of issues affecting junior lawyers in England and Wales.

Delegates were also be treated to a special presentation by Nick Cooper from the University of Leicester, who had been invited to speak on the historic find of the remains of King Richard III, which were unearthed in a Leicester car park earlier this year.

Richard III talk from Nick CooperThe meeting was hosted by the Leicestershire Junior Lawyers Division, which looks after the interests of junior lawyers living and working in Leicestershire.

I successfully lobbied for Leicester to host this meeting and I was very glad to have received the support of City Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby. Conferences such as this not only help local businesses, such as hotels, restaurants and bars; but they can also help to attract even more business to Leicester and ultimately, more jobs for local people.

Returning goods to stores made easy

Attempting to return goods to a store in this country can be an infuriating and drawn out process. However if you exude confidence, understand your legal rights and follow through on what you say, you shouldn’t have any problems at all.

When you buy something, pay for it and leave the store, the transaction may be complete but the contract is ongoing. In other words just because you’ve returned home or kept an item for a few weeks, you haven’t automatically completed your end of the contract, and you might still have an option to return or exchange something with which you are dissatisfied.

The question is: are you are dissatisfied with the item because it is faulty, or for some other reason?

If the goods are faulty, not fit for purpose, not as described or not of satisfactory quality, then you are entitled to a full refund. You do not have to accept a repair, a credit note or replacement, although you may want to consider this if you have had the goods for some considerable time.

If you have purchased the wrong item, changed your mind or the item is an unwanted gift, then you are not entitled to a full refund. More often than not however, the shop will give you a refund out of goodwill, but you may have to settle for an exchange or credit note if it’s outside of the store’s discretionary return period (usually 28 days).

You should always act quickly and return items as soon as possible. However if you are attempting to return faulty goods, then you have a “reasonable amount of time” within which to do so, irrespective of what the store’s policy is. So for example, it should to be perfectly fine to return a pair of faulty straighteners after about 6 months if they begin to singe your hair, because if you’ve spent more than £100 on them, you would expect them to work properly for a lot longer than 6 months.

However items which are not fit for purpose, not as described or not of satisfactory quality, should be returned fairly quickly, i.e. within a couple of months, because it would be not reasonable for the buyer to decide 6 months down the line for example that a pair of trousers were wrongly labelled as a size 34, but in-fact measured up as a size 28.

It is always best to have a receipt, but it’s also worth knowing that shops aren’t actually obliged to provide you with a receipt in the first place and under English law, you don’t need to show a receipt when you’re trying to return something. You are just as legally entitled to use a bank or credit card statement to prove the date and location of where the goods were purchased. In-fact simply having a witness who can verify your version of events may also be fine but it’s probably best avoided unless taking legal action.

Whatever happens, don’t take no for an answer, don’t tolerate silly excuses and don’t allow the shop to pass the buck onto the manufacturer. It is the trader’s responsibility to rectify the problem and it is up to them to go back to the manufacturer. If an item is faulty then you should quite simply have no problem in getting back your money from the shop where the item was purchased.

If you don’t get anywhere with the person at the counter, you could asked to speak with the manager. Remind the manager that he/she must surely be familiar with basic consumer law and the Sale of Goods Act, and that you would like the matter to be resolved immediately and without a fuss. If the store manager doesn’t cooperate, take the names of all the people you spoke with as well as details of the company’s head office (if applicable), and leave the store with your head held high.

It is then up to if you wish to take matters further, and you would have several options open to you. You could get in touch with their head office (if there is one) and outline the nature of your dissatisfaction. You could do a Companies House search online, get the addresses of all the Company Directors and then write to them individually. And of course you could always sue the company in the Small Claims Court, if the damages sought are less than £5,000, however this would be time consuming and probably cost you a few hundred pounds.

Overall just remember that you’re not a criminal for taking something back to a shop and wanting a refund, despite how the sales assistant looks at you. Just stay calm, be confident, polite and professional, and then when you feel the full weight of the English legal system behind you, just lean in and gently ask… “may I speak with the store manager please?”

THIS BLOG MUST NOT BE RELIED UPON AS LEGAL ADVICE

Junior lawyers inspired to take action

As the national representative for Leicestershire, I have the distinct honour of representing my home county on the national committee of the Junior Lawyers Division (JLD).

At our last full committee meeting, we received an inspirational briefing from Simon Baker, a member of the JLD’s executive committee. He briefed us all on The Milburn Report, a document published last summer by the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions, and chaired by the Government’s social mobility czar Alan Milburn.

The report identified law as a “closed profession”, with 50% of lawyers coming from private education, whereas nationally only around 7% of people attend private schools. Barriers to entering the profession include the cost of higher education, lack of work experience opportunities and poor careers advice in schools.

Simon also briefed us on a conference he had attended in late 2009, entitled “The Future of the Legal Profession”, where Mr Justice Vos was a keynote speaker. Mr Justice Vos spoke of the need to get young lawyers into schools and to act as role models and careers advisers, particularly to children from less privileged backgrounds, for whom having existing connections to members of the profession was a rarity.

The whole ethos at the Junior Lawyers Division and indeed the firm that I work for, is to take action, and work hard to make a difference. Thanks to the inspirational leadership of our executive committee officers, I decided to take action and to try and make a difference in my community. A few days later I applied to become a School Governor, and a few weeks ago I learnt that my application had been successful.

I am now a Governor for a modern, vibrant college here in the city of Leicester, and whilst no meetings have yet been held, I’m very much looking forward to investing my time and energy into this school, and working hard to try and make a difference for the children that study there.

I know there are other junior lawyers up and down the country with the drive and determination to change our society and to work to improve the lives of those less fortunate. My advice is to get out there and take action. The next generation is relying on us, now more than ever.