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Comment: complaints and PSDs require the same skillset

Does the IOPC need to adopt the mantle of poacher rather than gamekeeper in order to become a more efficient watchdog?

The Independent Office for Police Conduct views the first word in its title as non-negotiable given the demise of its predecessor –the IPCC- after a complete collapse in confidence in its ability and a growing public perception (albeit a misconceived one) that the misconduct system is somehow soft on police officers.

In order to restore confidence in the complaints process it has employed a large number of investigators with no policing background (two thirds of its operational pool and three quarters of general staff have never held a warrant card).

There is no conclusive evidence so far that this policy has greatly improved the watchdog’s ability to either complete the vast majority of investigations in a timely manner or significantly restore complainants’ confidence in the system.

This week’s Home Affairs Committee review supports that premise. Lady Brittan whose late husband was a high profile victim of Operation Midland, proved to be a formidable witness as a former regulator in her chosen field.

She told the committee that the IOPC investigators she dealt with lacked understanding of the criminal law - specifically the requirements of PACE relating to search warrants which were served on her home.

She suggested the “recruitment of qualified personnel and training in relevant skills” for IOPC staff would have improved her experience of the complaints process.

The IOPC told MPs that in Lady Brittan’s case it had used a team of mixed skills including investigators and some of its internal legal staff. It added that no police officers were present when statements were taken as part of its Operation Kentia investigation into the Midland inquiry, despite Lady Brittan’s general complaint that reform was needed to ensure that officers should be banned from the room when the watchdog takes statements during one of its investigations.

The question remains why? There is a common misconception that police officers cannot investigate their colleagues impartially. Most people who have been on the end of a Department of Professional Standards investigation will not recall any preferential treatment due to sharing a badge with their inquisitors. Corrupt associations among former colleagues can never be ruled out but in most forces PSDs are sufficiently large to ensure rogue elements are spotted and rooted out.

In its evidence to the committee the Police Federation pointed out that the officer dismissal rate for PSD initiated inquiries was far higher than for complaints investigations generated externally and supervised by the IOPC.

Is that because there is a significant difference in mission between two entities who perform very similar functions? PSD officers would say their core function in life is to proactively root out bad officers. Better policing and public confidence in policing is a by-product of that work, 

The IOPC’s role has more of a public relations element loaded at the front end of the organisation in that it must be “seen to be doing something“ about perceptions that officers are getting away with poor behaviour particularly if there is some footage that has gone viral on social media.

There has been a lot of rhetoric about a “re-tweaked” complaints system which is less focused on apportioning blame and more about “learning the lessons”.   

But public and officer faith in the system is unlikely to be bolstered by long winded investigations into lower level offensive language/use of force concerns that drag on for months and years. PSD investigations tend to be quicker and more forceful either way.    

Combined IOPC/PSD investigations are not uncommon but who does the heavy lifting in those inquiries (including Operation Hotton at Charing Cross Police Station) and who cares about police officers investigating their own if those not fit to wear the uniform are identifed and quickly dealt with? 

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