- 23 November 2023
Posted: 20 January 2023
In the last thirty years or so the Police (Conduct) Regulations have changed immeasurably. From Regulations that remained unchanged for decades, we are now living in a period where every few years yet another set of Regulations supersede the previous version. Not so long ago, Chief Officers sat alongside other high-ranking Officers on Police Misconduct Panels in judgement over lower ranking Officers. Accepting that Police Officers are vulnerable to vexatious complaints, allegations that Officers acted inappropriately had to be proved beyond reasonable doubt. Any appeals were heard by the Chief Constable. Today, we are in a position where a Panel led by an independent lawyer (a Legally Qualified Chair) decides on an Officer`s guilt or innocence on the balance of probabilities. Appeals are heard by a Panel led by another lawyer.
We were told that these changes were necessary to bring the Police Service into the modern world and, by the way, prevent the Police from “marking their own homework”. Apparently, Chief Officers were too reluctant to sack Officers who should be dismissed. The Public (i.e., politicians) therefore decided things had to change. Ironically, those Police Federation veterans around at the time, like myself, knew that there were indeed some Officers that survived who should not have done, but also many who were dismissed when they should not have been. Chief Officers, looking to the more widely well-being of the Force tended to throw in the mix whether the Officer was a “good thief taker” and generally one of the boys, or if he was a “sicknote” with a poor arrest record. Successful appeals to a Chief Constable were very rare. Hearings were run by the Police and in private.
In those days, allegations usually involved actions made by the Officer in the course of his duty, e.g., incivility, excessive use of force etc. There were few matters coming before Panels solely for racist, misogynistic, data protection or social media infractions.
The two other ways that Officers’ services may have been dispensed with are failing to pass their probationary period (by failing to make an efficient and well-conducted constable) and continued poor performance. Supervisors in those days were encouraged to be intrusive and vigilant. The former, especially, was common and an Officer passing their probation was seen as a “badge of honour”.
So, we ended up with independent Panels deciding on whether an Officer should be dismissed.
There is now a presumption that Hearings will be held in public. However, as time has gone on, there is now a perception that because the majority of the Panel are not Police Officers, and do not properly understand police work, some of their decisions and sanctions over the years have ranged from one end of ludicrous to another. So, funnily enough, Officers who should have been dismissed have survived and officers who should have survived have been sacked. Again, successful appeals to an Appeal Panel are still very rare. So, not much has changed and in many ways, we are back where we started.
The rate of Officers leaving the Service by failing to pass their probation and poor performance is now rare. Probationary Officers facing misconduct allegations are usually dealt with by the conduct route and not dispensed with via the probationary regulation. Apart from the very serious and rare step of a charge of Gross Incompetence against an Officer, under-performing Officers may only be dismissed following a lengthy and bureaucratic process which seldom results in dismissal. The Service has lowered its focus on this as successive Governments have brought in new Regulations, supervision is less forthright and intrusive and as a result the standard of performance of the average Officer is considered by many to have dropped.
There are two matters that are causing another re-think by the Government, supported by the media and therefore, public opinion. These matters are linked, and it is the Government and the Police Service who may shoulder much of the blame.
When I applied to join the Police Service over 37 years ago, vetting was taken very seriously. PNC and intelligence checks were undertaken against the candidate, his family, neighbours and associates. A Senior Officer would visit the home address and interview the candidate and his family purely for vetting purposes. If there was any question mark, there was little chance of success. Candidates with previous convictions (even minor and spent) were very rarely considered. Thorough vetting continued at regular periods through a police career.
With the coming of massive cuts to the police budgets, vetting lost its teeth and was often performed at a desk with a computer. The candidate was rarely visited personally and regular vetting during an Office’s career became sporadic and infrequent.
Additionally, in the last few years, money has been made available by the Government with a requirement that the total amount of Officers is rapidly increased by 20,000 nationally. Each Force has a quota for new recruits and if the Force fails to reach it, it incurs financial penalties. So now Forces are under pressure to get a flood of new applicants through the door with an ineffective and ill-prepared vetting system and poor supervisory systems once they are in.
Less than robust vetting is being blamed for several high-profile incidents where serving Police Officers have been convicted of serious crimes. We need only to think of Couzens and more recently, Carrick. Both were Firearms Officers who have committed ghastly crimes against women. Even worse, although facts are sketchy, it appears that not only were there failed opportunities to catch them and stop crimes being committed, that initial and continuous vetting was either poor or non-existent. Both had serious question marks against them before they joined the Police Service and also during their service.
The Home Office has now published its aims and the scope of a new, and fast moving, review into Police Conduct and other Regulations governing the Police. It`s aim is to ensure that:
“The process of police dismissals is fair and effective and ensure that the public can be confident that those falling far short of the high standards expected of them can be removed from policing”
“The Home Office invites evidence on the broader effectiveness of the disciplinary and performance systems”
Stakeholders will be requested to provide evidence to support, in their view, if and what changes should be made via legislation or guidance. Stakeholders include Police Forces, Crime and Fire Commissioners, Independent Office for Police Conduct, National Police Chiefs Council and the Police Federation of England and Wales.
It does not take an expert in policing to see the way the wind is blowing. Rightly, the “Public” are angered at the actions of Police Officers one can count on one hand (paradoxically, the anger and contempt felt towards the Police was not mirrored by that felt towards the Medical Profession over Harold Shipman and Beverley Allitt). The Government will be sure to act quickly and ruthlessly, with the support of most of the stakeholders and the shrugged shoulders of the Police Federation.
We will be going full circle. Vetting will be strengthened. Chief Officers will again decide who is dismissed and this time, being a “good thief taker” will not save an Officer. More officers will fail to pass their probation and more will fall foul of a beefed-up performance regime.
Many will say these changes are about time and welcomed. Others will say we are throwing the baby out with the bath water. In any case, these changes are unlikely to be the last.
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