Lack of consensus on standards risks undermining the misconduct system

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Lack of consensus on standards risks undermining the misconduct system has reported that the Independent Police Complaints’ Commission may direct misconduct hearings in a number of chief officer cases where the appropriate authorities have concluded there is no case to answer – highlighting a damaging lack of consensus about standards of conduct in policing.

In 2012 the court of appeal freed five men who had been convicted of a murder that took place in Staffordshire in 2002, describing the case as a “serious perversion of the course of justice”. The case hinged on disclosure issues and four serving chief officers (one of whom has now retired) were among 14 police officers served with misconduct notices in 2011. Operation Kalmia, an IPCC managed investigation, was undertaken by Chief Constable Mick Creedon of Derbyshire Constabulary.

In respect of the chief officers three chief constables and an ACC the IPCC sent reports to the relevant appropriate authorities towards the end of 2014. In a statement Staffordshire PCC Matthew Ellis said that the report he received, relating to (then-Temporary) Chief Constable Jane Sawyers, ran to 556 pages, and later clarified that this was accompanied by 10,000 pages of evidence.

In March, at a session of the Staffordshire Ethics, Transparency and Audit Panel, Matthew Ellis revealed that the IPCC had assessed that Jane Sawyers had a case to answer for gross misconduct. His view, having assessed the report and evidence, and having commissioned a QC and an experienced professional standards Superintendent from another force to do likewise, was that Jane Sawyers in fact had no case to answer.

In a statement he said that “…in the climate and culture of the times 10 years ago, there is no evidence that there was such a breach of professional behaviour to justify a conclusion of gross misconduct or misconduct”.

Mr Ellis later revealed, during the Staffordshire Police and Crime Panelconfirmatory hearing for Chief Constable Sawyers, that the IPCC had originally indicated they thought the chief constable had five cases to answer, but these had since been reduced to only two.

We shouldn’t be surprised that there is a degree of subjectivity involved in complex cases such as the one outlined above, but it is difficult to understand how different parties reviewing the same material can reach diametrically opposed conclusions. It is arguably even harder to understand how the IPCC can then revise its own assessment on the number of cases especially given howhigh profile the investigation is, and how much time and money has been invested in it.

Last year I was involved, with colleagues from Birkbeck College and University College London,in research on chief officer misconduct in policing for the College of Policing, during which we interviewed 25 investigators who had investigated 33 chief officers connected to 40 misconduct cases since 2008.

One of our key findings (discussed in a chapter dealing with how misconduct is investigated) was that “there are differences between forces, and regulatory and oversight bodies about ethical standards and the thresholds between acceptable conduct, misconduct and gross misconduct, and how they are investigated. A key task is in creating a greater consensus on these issues, which require open debate”.

The College of Policing is currently leading work to achieve more consistent decision making on misconduct sanctions akin to sentencing guidelines within and between police force PSDs, with the intention that stakeholders (such as the IPCC) will ultimately sign up to them.

But consistency of sanctions will be contingent on different parties agreeing the facts of individual cases, which standards should apply (particularly in older cases) and whether behaviour constitutes misconduct in the first place. The Staffordshire case, but also other recent cases including Police Federation representatives who met with Andrew Mitchell MP at the time of the Plebgate’ affair, have exposed glaring differences in how behaviour is viewed.

Institutions such as the IPCC and especially police forces rely on public trust and legitimacy for their effectiveness and the kinds of disagreements outlined above can only serve to put that at risk. Greater consistency is essential to avoid the whole misconduct system, and the authority of those playing key roles in it, being fundamentally undermined.