How independent is independent?

March 18, 2004 — Comment

Written by Harmit Athwal

For Black and Minority Ethnic communities, the lack of independent scrutiny of the handling of complaints against the police, has been one of the most contentious issues. Will the new Independent Police Complaints Commission be able to win back confidence?

On 1 April, the new Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) will begin work handling complaints previously dealt with by the Police Complaints Authority (PCA). The IPCC, according to its publicity, was designed ‘to raise standards, cut delays, increase public confidence and transform the way police forces handle complaints from the public.’

What’s new?

It boasts that the new body:

  • will be independent of government and the police. (Under the ‘old’ PCA police officers investigated one another.)
  • will have new powers to run or supervise investigations into complaints or allegations of misconduct.
  • will have powers to run ‘a number of investigations into serious issues’ . (These may include incidents such as death in custody or the shooting of a member of the public by a police officer.)
  • will listen to appeals if ‘in specified circumstances’ it feels a complaint has been inappropriately handled.
  • will be obliged to keep complainants informed of the progress of an investigation (which may include giving complainants a copy of the investigating officer’s report).

But evidence emerging from those involved in the new body suggests that all might not be as new and as independent as it first appeared.

Local police will still investigate

The PCA was often criticised because police officers (albeit from other forces) investigated complaints about other officers. However, the IPCC appears not to be quite as independent as its name suggests. For most complaints will continue to be investigated by local police as they have been in the past – except that now, the local force will be required to meet strict, though as yet un-established, new standards.

No such thing as ‘completely independent’

Nick Hardwick, the chair of the IPCC, who was formerly the head of the Refugee Council, clearly wants to make the Commission as effective and responsive as possible. But he recently admitted that ‘there will be no such thing as a completely independent investigation’. Talking to the Morris Inquiry he said, ‘At the very least, here in London, it would be the MPS [Metropolitan Police Service] who do all the golden hour stuff, who preserve the scene before we can assemble our teams and have them on site…. there may be some cases that are so serious, that have such impact on public concern, that we would want to do everything ourselves, and we have the capacity and resources in a small number of investigations to do absolutely that…but a significant proportion of the staff involved might come from the police service.’

Independent investigations limited

At a recent Information Network Event organised by the IPPC, John Wadham, deputy chair (previously head of Liberty) announced that in its first year the IPCC will be able to conduct only 30 completely independent investigations. Compare this to the 11,000 complaints the IPCC is expected to handle in any one year and the future looks bleak.

Investigators will be former police officers

There is also concern about the background of investigators. Nick Hardwick told the Morris Inquiry that senior investigators, for the most part, will be those ‘with a police background because they have the experience we want’. And, because those with the right skills tended to have had 30 years experience in the police service, it followed (regrettably, for him) that no senior investigators were from a visible minority. So ultimately it will be white police officers (albeit retired ones this time ) investigating other police officers.

No absolute requirement on disclosure

John Wadham, also told those at the Information Network Event that a major difference between the old PCA and the new IPCC, was in relation to the disclosure of investigating officers’ reports. But it then transpired in discussion that it was still rather Hardwick and Wadham’s hope, rather than a legal requirement, that officers would disclose their reports.

The future?

Many people have high hopes for the IPCC. Very obviously those now in charge of the body – who have previously served in human rights organisations concerned about ethnic minorities and policing – appear genuine in their thirst for change in the police complaints system. But the reality of bringing about that change remains to be seen.

Lee Bridges, Chair, School of Law, University of Warwick was cautious about welcoming the new IPCC. He told IRR News:’The purpose of the new body appears to be to provide a semblance of credibility in the investigation of high-profile complaints that have attracted public attention. But the real test will be the response to the thousands of complaints that do not make headlines.’ He is concerned that the IPCC will do for the complaints system what the Racial and Violent Crimes Task Force (RVCTF) did for the investigation of racist murders: defuse public concern about the issue by conducting effective investigations of cases when they become well-known, while at the same time leaving the day-to-day work of local forces largely unchanged. For Black and Minority Ethnic community groups, there will be a difficult dilemma of how closely to work with the IPCC, as there has been with the RVCTF.

Related links

Leaflet about the role of the IPCC (pdf file, 80kb)

Independent Police Complaints Commission

Inquest

Miscarriages of Justice UK

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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