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Peter Walker: The police need protection from malicious complaints

PeterwalkerPeter Walker, a former Deputy Chief Constable of North Yorkshire, says the public unhappy with thge police should first be offered and explanation and apology before being invited to make a formal complaint

Getting enthusiastic support for your proposals from all parts of the House of Commons is a feat that Ministers rarely accomplish.

Yet, as one after another, MPs rose to endorse Theresa May's approach to conduct and integrity issues in the police earlier this week, it was clear the Home Secretary had achieved just that.

Yvette Cooper had a few quibbles, as could be anticipated - but apart from wanting a costly rebranding exercise of the Independent Police Complaints Commission to a new "Police Standards Agency", they didn't amount to much and to be fair, she was in agreement with the thrust of the Government's approach.

The seven elements of the policy present solutions to the issues that have caused so much public concern in recent times. The Hillsborough cover-up, improper liaisons between police officers and journalists revealed by Leveson and the hampering of discipline investigations caused by officers going sick or retiring - or simply refusing to be interviewed - have created lasting reputational damage to the police.

The Home Secretary also demonstrated how the many elements of the Police Reform Programme start to work together in practice.

The College of Policing, newly created to improve the quality of police leadership and drive up standards, will take on the task of publishing a new code of conduct for all police officers and will also lead on creating not only a national register of those struck off from membership of any police force but stronger vetting of anyone who aspires to join, or to progress within the police.

Prior to the College's creation, there was no central body that could mandate standards for the whole of the police, although it was obviously essential to have one. People will now be able to see the advantages of the new policing arrangements in practice as the College embarks on this important task.

The Home Affairs Select Committee recently reported on the IPCC and recommended it received stronger powers and greater resources to undertake its work. It simply cannot be right that the Commission is only able to take on about ten percent of the most serious and sensitive cases that are referred to it and giving the impression of being a retirement home for police officers does nothing to enhance the essential requirement for it to be truly independent of the police.

The latter point bears further scrutiny - specific police experience always helps when investigating what operational officers have done. Knowing the context of police actions and thinking really informs the investigative process and there is a benefit from "knowing where the bodies might be buried" when you are looking for evidence of misconduct. However, there are plenty of people outside the police who undertake investigative work, from Customs officers to professional auditors and the IPCC should take the opportunity to change its approach to recruiting.

Yvette Cooper, of course, was all for spending more money on her "Police Standards Agency", but Theresa May had a simple solution for overcoming the problem of strengthening the IPCC without seeking additional funding. Instead, she rightly argued that because the work is going to move from individual police forces, so the money presently spent in those forces on dealing with serious and sensitive complaints should move to the IPCC.

This cost-neutral approach should be welcomed by all of us who saw the need for improving the IPCC, but recognised we live in a world where there can be no extra spending.

There will no doubt be a fair old dust-up about just how much money should be transferred from force budgets to the IPCC, so we should prepare for special pleading from a number of Police & Crime Commissioners as the new arrangements settle into place. However, they need to recognise the majority of complaints are about police officers being rude or late, so the best way to save money on dealing with them is to promote effective standards and greater efficiencies in their forces - reducing the number that are made in the first place.

Yet there is more that can be done to reduce the costs associated with complaints against the police - and we must appreciate that some are maliciously generated by people who hope their existence will lead to a prosecution being dropped.

Most people do not want to see the officer who dealt with them sacked, or indeed punished in any way, they have what might best be described as a grievance about the manner in which an incident was handled.

An explanation or an apology is what they are after, but on far too many occasions the police complaints system is invoked and before you know it, the matter is referred to the "Professional Standards" Department and a cumbersome and bureaucratic process lumbers into gear.

I'm not alone as a business leader in dealing with complaints by ensuring the words "I'm sorry you feel this way" form the first sentence of my response to any expression of dissatisfaction by one of my customers, quickly followed by a description of why matters may have arisen and an enquiry as to how they want me to deal with it.

As a young Constable I remember (on many occasions!) being taken to one side by my Sergeant for "guidance" which went no further, taught me a lesson and no doubt satisfied the person who had raised the issue subject of complaint. It certainly didn't seem to cost any money.

In later service as an Inspector and Superintendent investigating complaints, or as a Deputy Chief Constable having to decide what level of investigation or disciplinary sanction was warranted in individual cases I formed the view the highly regulated, costly and cumbersome police complaints system created far more work than was necessary, yet rarely satisfied the genuine complainant. The number of successful appeals against decisions made by local forces to the IPCC underlines this.

Every police force has well-developed methods by which minor workplace issues may be resolved using a "Grievance" procedure, rather than resorting to costly internal disciplinary processes or Employment Law. These demonstrate an ability to swiftly resolve matters and cost very little.

There is no reason why similar approaches should not be used to handle complaints, where the person raising the issue is satisfied this is the right thing to do in their case. Front line Sergeants are paid to use their judgement and they should be empowered to do so when members of the public are unhappy with the manner in which a police officer has dealt with them.

Giving people "a good listening to", identifying what caused concern and quickly taking action to resolve the problem and - most importantly - checking to see the customer is satisfied is the way in which well run businesses handle complaints.

Adopting similar simple approaches would enhance relations and, above all, save the police a lot of money.


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