Should officers being investigated for misconduct be allowed to apply for promotion?

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Related Theme: Workforce

Should officers being investigated for misconduct be allowed to apply for promotion?

Amidst the fallout following the verdicts in the Hillsborough inquests, one story that garnered media attention and caught my eye was the case of the South Yorkshire Police DCC Dawn Copley, who was promoted to acting chief constable following David Crompton’s suspension as chief constable, but then promptly indicated her desire not to hold the role.

It transpired that DCC Copley has, along with a number of former colleagues, been subject to an investigation by Kent police relating to allegations of ‘corrupt practice’, dating from her previous role when she was ACC in charge of professional standards at Greater Manchester Police. While the investigation appears to have concluded, the final outcomes have not been announced.

I’m clearly not in a position to comment on the substance of the allegations, although it should be said that it appears Dawn Copley was transparent about the investigation when applying for the South Yorkshire DCC job. But her case, and indeed others such as Staffordshire chief constable Jane Sawyers (which I have discussed before), nevertheless raise an interesting ethical question: should officers subject to investigations for misconduct or even criminal matters be allowed to apply for promotion?

Questions that follow include: how fully a prospective new employer can understand the nature and credibility of the allegations when making a decision, particularly if a case is unresolved at the time, the officer is transferring forces, or the case is being investigated by a third party (whether the IPCC or another force); and, whether the approach is applied equitably across the ranks and to both officers and staff.

These issues were discussed in the College of Policing study of chief officer misconduct that I co-authored and that was published last year, during which we heard one allegation of what appeared, at least superficially, to be an example of blatant double standards:

‘ we were told about a chief officer who was reportedly allowed to apply for promotion while the subject of an on-going investigation into a serious allegation where criminal charges were being considered, while at the same time more junior ranks in a similar position were apparently told by the same chief officer they could not do likewise.’

It is important to note that such (perceptions of) double standards present a number of risks to the credibility of senior leaders, efforts to improve integrity, and perceptions of organisational justice’. As the College of Policing state in their summary of four studies relating to leadership and integrity (including the chief officer misconduct research):

‘The evidence suggests that officers and staff who feel they have been unfairly treated are likely to disengage, see less value in delivering a quality service to the public, become more cynical in their views, and be less committed to ethical policing.’

But as we go on to discuss in the chief officer research report, the question of promotions while subject to misconduct allegations is not at all black and white.

First, we heard that some roles particularly heads of professional standards and chief constables typically attract more complaints than most other roles, given the nature of their responsibilities.

Second, we heard about and discussed examples of vexatious, malicious or unsubstantiated complaints that were nevertheless investigated thoroughly, in some cases at length.

Third, it is clear that investigation timescales can be protracted, extending over several years in some more complex cases.

Given these factors, it would seem to be wrong to have a blanket rule that no officer or staff member subject to an investigation should be allowed to apply for promotion.

The challenge that follows for police forces and, where relevant, Police and Crime Commissioners, is to ensure that to the greatest extent possible decisions about promotions where investigations are ongoing are taken consistently and in a way that is perceived to be fair by both the officers or staff involved, the wider police service and indeed the public. That is no easy task and might usefully be addressed in the first instance with a set of published guidance, probably produced by the Home Office and College of Policing.

This blog was previously published in Police Oracle.