A complaints system working for no one

8 November 2017

The police complaints system needs to improve urgently. Eighty per cent of people who used the system last year were dissatisfied, and police officers often cite it as a source of stress and anxiety.

Most police complaints are dealt with in one of two ways: local investigation or local resolution – only the most serious complaints are handled by Independent Police Complaint Commission (IPCC) investigators, following a referral from a local force. Forces are encouraged to use local resolutions in cases where the reason for the complaint would not justify criminal or disciplinary proceedings, even if proven. The process is meant to encourage meaningful communication with the complainant, and provide a more flexible and, importantly, timely manner of reaching a conclusion.

When it comes to timeliness, local resolutions are living up to the intention. In 2016-17, it took forces 67 working days to resolve complaints by local resolution on average, compared to 166 days for local investigations. This is partly explained by the different levels of seriousness of cases, yet the disparities in the extent to which local resolutions are deployed suggest that settling on an approach is also a question of the attitudes of local forces.

Despite the relative timeliness of local resolutions, the rate of appeals received over outcomes indicate that engagements with complainants are not always as constructive as intended – while making up only around 40 per cent of finalised allegations, local resolutions accounted for 58 per cent of appeals to chief officers in 2016-17. Reports published in 2013 found that local resolutions often failed to deliver what many complainants actually wanted the most, an apology, and that complainants had concerns with their level of independence.

Reforms to the police complaints system are under way, including changes in the governance model of the IPCC, as it transitions to the Independent Office for Police Conduct early next year. Crucial to local processes, police and crime commissioners will also be increasingly involved with the complaints process, and have from this year had the opportunity to take over responsibility for the bulk of complaints procedures. Given concerns over the independence of police forces investigating themselves, this may prove a positive step in the direction of more public trust.

Furthermore, as police and crime commissioners are accountable to the public, they are likely to have a strong interest in complainant satisfaction. As the commissioner for North Yorkshire, and national Association of Police and Crime Commissioners lead for Transparency and Integrity, Julia Mulligan recently stated, her intention is to “put customer service at the heart of what we do, and [make] sure policing learns the lessons from poor practice, but also celebrates the good.”

Putting ‘customer service’ at the centre of police complaints speaks to the need for an entirely new approach to the police complaints system. In 2014, the then outgoing Deputy Chair of the IPCC, Deborah Glass, identified a flaw at its core:

The system is still rooted in the police discipline system, so that complaints have historically been recorded “against” an officer. This almost inevitably triggers a defensive response. It also, almost inevitably, means that, where there is no supporting independent evidence that could underpin disciplinary action, there will be a conclusion of no case to answer.

This approach is dispiriting to complainants and officers alike; forces are preoccupied with an overly procedural focus on allocating blame, even in cases where this is neither the intention of the complainant nor the best way of improving the force for the future. Police and crime commissioners should be encouraged to take on the responsibility for the complaints system and prove that their unique relationships with police forces can move the complaints system towards becoming an engine for a more democratically accountable and self-improving police service.

Emilie Sundorph, Researcher, Reform

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