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, and I work alongside some of the finest people I have ever had the pleasure to call my colleagues.
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 public servants and 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; an incredibly difficult and frustrating task whilst we have a government that does not value public sector workers.
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 Labour 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 mistrust 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.
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 death 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 or 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.