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January 15th 2019

Civil Liberties

Police watchdog must focus on improving process of investigating forces and officers’ actions

Andrew Petherbridge

Andrew Petherbridge

Legal Executive and Head of Civil Liberties

Police watchdog must focus on improving process of investigating forces and officers’ actions

As specialist lawyers who represent a large number of people in challenging the actions and investigations of police forces and officers, I know many find the process very difficult and one which is often unnecessarily and frustratingly slow.

As specialist lawyers who represent a large number of people in challenging the actions and investigations of police forces and officers, I know many find the process very difficult and one which is often unnecessarily and frustratingly slow.

In many cases the families we represent have lost loved ones in deaths which have for some reason called into question the actions of police officers or forces.

In such situations, families want three things.

They want thorough investigations to held, they want all involved to be fully accountable for their actions, and they want to see progress and answers as quickly as possible, in the hope that lessons can be learned.

Of course, the police watchdog, The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), has a difficult job to do.

Its own investigations often run alongside those of many other organisations and bodies, including the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), the Coroner’s Court and police forces’ own internal investigations.

As the IOPC has rightly highlighted, awaiting the outcomes of such processes can impact on the speed of its own investigations and conclusions.

However, this can be no excuse for investigations running into years – years where families still have no closure on the matter, and years where the officers under question remain suspended on full pay.

Police officers have remained suspended on full pay for years

It was recently reported that officers from Bedfordshire Police were only sacked in October of last year over a case in which a man was left paralysed and brain damaged in 2013. It also took seven years for an Avon and Somerset officer to be cleared of gross misconduct after a man died in custody in 2010.

I know that recently published statistics showing that many officers remain on full pay for years after being suspended as investigations into their conduct continue will anger many of the people I represent.

The new data has shown that almost half of the officers currently suspended from UK forces have been off-duty for at least a year.

Statistics from 31 forces provided to the BBC through a Freedom of Information request showed 71 of the 153 officers who were fully suspended from duty in October 2018 (46%) had been suspended since at least November 2017.

It was even revealed that one Met Police officer has been suspended on full pay for five years – on an annual salary of around £35,000 a year – as he is one of a number of officers investigated in relation to the death of a man who had a cardiac arrest after being restrained at a police station.

The officer involved has wanted to leave his job during these years but has instead been prevented from doing so, collecting around £150,000 in salary as the case continues.

In that time, not only have the deceased families been left without full answers, but he and his fellow officers have also had the matter hanging over them for much longer than is acceptable.

Lawyers can ensure IOPC holds police forces fully to account

In a number of cases where the IOPC is involved, we have had to express our concerns on behalf of families and other complainants with regards to a lack of progress in investigations, whilst we have often felt that serious and relevant questions have not been asked or fully pursued.

We see it as our role to ensure the IOPC is carrying out its duty and holding our police forces fully to account in each of the cases we are involved in.

The IOPC has stated that it is now completing nearly half of its investigations within six months and nearly 80 per cent within a year.  However, too many are dragging on far longer, and that is unacceptable.

Investigations must always move at a pace and not face avoidable delays.

They must be thorough and far-reaching, ensuring officers are held to account and that lessons are learned if the IOPC is to be fully fit for purpose and not leave families feeling they have been let down once again.

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