Heralded as a force for change at its launch, the Independent Police Complaints Commission is out of touch, ineffective and takes the side of the police rather than the public, claims former member John Crawley in The Guardian, Wednesday 8 April 2009
Clashes between police and protestors during the G20 summit in London highlighted the sort of controversies the IPCC might have to address.
Hopes were high when the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) was launched in April 2004 that there would now be a reformed police complaints system - providing legal rights for complainants - that was above all independent, so that police were not investigating themselves. After 20 years working for a housing and social care agency in inner-city Birmingham, I joined the IPCC, as one of 18 new commissioners, with the aim of righting injustices. We claimed to be the most powerful civilian oversight body in the world, and we prepared to change the world. Five years on, I decided to leave. So what had gone wrong?
Only around 100 IPCC investigations, plus 150 police investigations "managed" by the IPCC, are undertaken each year, compared to 29,000 complaints. The majority of those 100 are not even complaints about day-to-day policing, but concern incidents where Article 2 of the Human Rights Act - the police's duty to safeguard life - may be involved, and by law require IPCC investigation. Some, such as the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell tube in 2005 and possibly the death last week of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protests in London, rightly attract great public concern. But the question, "Do you have to be dead before the IPCC takes an interest in your case?", is too near the truth.
Against this trend, I managed for some years to secure resources to initiate investigations into complaints about operational policing, such as stop and search and unlawful detention. My investigations into West Midlands police's excessive and inappropriate use of section 60 searches - a highly intrusive power whereby the constable does not have to have a "reasonable suspicion" to justify the stop - got demonstrable results: from 2004 to 2007, the use of this power reduced dramatically. I also gave high priority to complainants' appeals against local police's own investigations, including stop and search and unlawful arrest allegation cases in the Metropolitan police.
Under the system the IPCC replaced, few complaints were substantiated, a tiny number of officers faced discipline, and police investigations were strung out over years. Figures from 2007/08 show that nothing much has changed under the IPCC. In that year, just 11% of complaints were upheld, but your chances of success varied wildly, depending on where you complained. In West Yorkshire or Humberside, 96% of all complaints were dismissed, but in Bedfordshire 20% were upheld. Even more worrying, just 1% of allegations of serious assault were substantiated. And as a result of complaints, only 15 officers lost their jobs, one was demoted, and 24 were fined a few days' pay - a total of 0.028% of the national workforce.
I have no wish to impugn the large majority of upright officers, but these statistics disclose a complaints system that fails to identify or punish the minority who abuse their office, and it serves the decent majority ill.
There were 2,260 appeals against local police investigations of complaints in 2007/08 - a significant measure of dissatisfaction with a system of investigation. Fewer than one in five were upheld by the IPCC.
The police watchdog has failed to become a complainant-focused, public-facing and customer-serving organisation. It has hidden itself away, choosing often remote and inaccessible offices, avoiding face-to-face contact with the public or complainants. I handled the West Midlands, which has the second largest police force in the country, yet the IPCC has no office in the region, employs virtually no one from there and, since I left, has no commissioner resident in the region.
You can walk into any police station and make a complaint, but you cannot walk into an IPCC office and do so. Police officers are regular visitors to the IPCC, and staff make frequent visits to police professional standards (complaints handling) departments to discuss cases. High priority is afforded to staff and commissioners attending the annual cycle of conferences organised by the variety of policing organisations, but no comparable priority is given to identifying and speaking at events and organisations working for complainants' interests.
The IPCC's focus on the police, rather than the public, is evident in its decisions. It sees itself as part of the wider "family" of police agencies, such as the National Police Improvement Agency, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and the Association of Chief Police Officers, all under the paternalistic wing of the Home Office, the paymaster and ringmaster.
Its 400 staff and budget (£32.2m in 2007-08) are mostly funded by the Home Office. Full-time commissioners (board members), appointed by the home secretary for a five-year term of office, are paid £75,000 a year and are led by a full-time executive chair. Commissioners must by law have no police background, and are there to safeguard the IPCC's independence. However, former police and customs officers fill many investigatory and management roles, and its two chief executives have both come from the Home Office.
Commissioners seeking a second term must reapply for their jobs from scratch, which inevitably compromises the independence of the role. I concluded reluctantly that I could no longer support an organisation producing the worst of all outcomes - timidity towards police accountability and redress for complainants, combined with a drawn-out bureaucratic approach that can penalise innocent police officers, who have a cloud hanging over them sometimes for years. We are left with a veneer of independence, but a complaints body that is largely absent from the complaints system it oversees.
Despite its much-flaunted values, the IPCC rarely debated fundamental questions about its strategy and priorities. The resignation of the Police Action Lawyers Group - solicitors who specialise in police complaints work - from the IPCC advisory board in 2007 because it felt it had no influence, and the broader concern about how the voice of complainants and the public could be heard within the IPCC, were never debated.
Commissioners have become ornamental, and the pressure was to delegate more and more to managers, including vital decisions on whether the IPCC should get involved in a complaint investigation. Even allegations of serious criminal assault are now routinely left for investigation by the police, although just 1% of such complaints are upheld by the police.
What is the taxpayer getting for a commission costing millions of pounds? Strong lay involvement of people who bring independent judgment is a critical ingredient, but the commission has presided supinely over their irrelevance.
So what is to be done? I propose that four key reforms are urgently required.
First, the chair needs to be a part-time, non-executive appointment with the task of supporting and empowering an effective commission that is driving the complaints system and taking the key decisions on cases and the direction of the organisation. All commissioner appointments should be for only one term of six or seven years, removing the potential for reappointment to be a source of pressure on independence.
Second, the IPCC must boost dramatically the number and range of its own investigations, while cutting the length of its investigations.
Third, the Commons public accounts committee recently criticised the IPCC for having no feedback mechanism from complainants (or police officers) on the quality of its services. It must become a public and complainant-facing organisation, adopting an ombudsman type of service, with the focus on proper redress for the public.
Finally, while commissioners cannot make all of the decisions, they must take proper responsibility for investigations and appeal decisions.
The press is littered with public concern about current police tactics, including the way that demonstrations are handled. These issues particularly affect younger people, and we risk yet another disaffected generation. How the IPCC addresses what may be increasing policing controversies associated with protest movements will be a critical test of whether it is worth preserving or is a failed model.
• John Crawley was a commissioner at the IPCC from 2004 to 2008