A police duty of candour requires a new IPCC approach

16 May 2016

Now that the inquest is over and the truth of events at Hillsborough is clear, attention is focusing less on the decisions made on that fateful day than on the cover-up which followed. This is now very much in the public domain and uncomfortable questions are rightly being asked of the police.

There have been many other instances, some still under investigation, where the openness and integrity of the police have been called into question.

After 27 years of large scale alteration and withholding of evidence and information and years of legal challenge the apologies seem hollow and forced.

On the minds of the public and every serving officer must be the words “never again.”

If Hillsborough is to be a watershed moment in policing then the next challenge is to determine what should happen in the future.

There has been talk about changing police culture. Indeed, this has been one of the Government’s central thrusts of reform. Initiatives such as Direct Entry, Fast Track and Police Now have been introduced with a view to getting people into the organisation at a higher level, promoting them rapidly or expecting them to leave after just a few years of service. The pros and cons of these are for another debate, but the numbers of entrants are so small that it has to be asked whether they can make a dent before they themselves become subsumed in the culture which already exists.

Equally there has been talk about flattening the rank structure and making the police more tolerant of internal dissent and ideas. One senior officer has said “deference is dead”, but, on the ground, there is little evidence of this.

Reading anything from the College of Policing would lead you to think that challenge is welcome, indeed actively encouraged. If you don’t like something, question it. There is much talk of policing being made more academic, where debate and discussion is welcome and normal.

As a serving officer I struggle with this concept. Even putting aside the fact that policing relies on command and control, it is arguable that the “challenge everything” approach can be embraced.

Policing is entirely governed by regulation. These are laid down in statute and the restrictions they place upon any serving officer are significant.

They act as a limit to free speech and in the worst case scenario officers can be accused of “bringing the service into disrepute” or “failure to carry out a lawful order” – and the penalty for “causing disaffection” is severe. When complaints about officers can be instigated from within, as well as from the public, is it safe to speak out?

The National Police Chiefs’ Council has responded to the Hillsborough Inquest by suggesting the police adopt a Duty of Candour along similar lines to the NHS.

This apparently works well. It is designed to make the NHS more responsive to complaints – to ensure lessons are learnt – and it mandates an apology. In theory it makes sense.

Whether this could work in policing is a different story. Greater Manchester Police recently apologised for words used in a training scenario. This apology was deemed unnecessary by many – especially the press – but policing never makes everyone happy. How often will the police be forced to apologise even when they’ve done the right thing?

The real stumbling block to this idea though, is the Independent Police Complaints Commission. It is their approach to investigations which has made officers and the police service ever more defensive. The climate is less about dishonesty and more about fear. Fear of making a genuine mistake and then being harshly punished for it. The punitive measures suggested by the Shadow Home Secretary a few days ago may make it less likely that officers will immediately hold their hands up to errors.

It is all very well suggesting that officers change their attitude and introducing a Duty of Candour, but until such time as the policing structure is relaxed and those with oversight become less aggressive, the defensive culture in policing is likely to remain.

Nathan Constable is currently a serving police Inspector. The blog is written under a pseudonym.

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