On 12 January 2015 amendments to legislation governing the conduct of police officers came into force. These went largely unheralded, but they have the potential to help restore the public confidence in the system for holding police officers accountable in some of the most serious cases.
At a time when the accountability of police officers in America is under the spotlight following a number of high profile deaths of black men during police contact, it can be easy to overlook the fact that this country does not have a good record in terms of holding police officers to account for their actions.
According to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) thirty eight officers in England and Wales left the service between 2009/10 and 2012/13 during independent investigations, fourteen of those during the misconduct process. And these are likely to be only the tip of the iceberg, given that the vast majority of investigations into police misconduct are carried out by police forces themselves.
The recent amendment to the Regulations which govern police conduct, The Police (Conduct) Regulations 2012, means that, where an assessment has been carried that a police officer’s conduct could amount to gross misconduct, that officer can no longer resign or retire from the police force until the necessary procedures have been concluded.
Additionally, officers who face potential misconduct proceedings on any charge and who have previously been given a final written warning are also prevented from resigning pending the outcome of the investigation and disciplinary procedure.
People may well wonder what the big deal is. The fact is that, prior to this amendment, police officers who were being investigated for very serious matters, including the death of a person in their custody, could escape potential sanctions by resigning or retiring from the police force in which they worked.
Once they had resigned, whilst they could have still faced criminal charges, no disciplinary procedures could be brought. Astonishingly, these officers were also allowed to resign from one police force and then apply to join another.
This is exactly what happened in the case of PC Harwood, the officer who was eventually charged with the manslaughter of Ian Tomlinson, the newspaper vendor who died after being pushed to the ground during the 2009 G-20 summit protests in London.
An inquest jury found Tomlinson to have been unlawfully killed. PC Harwood was subsequently acquitted of Tomlinson’s manslaughter but it emerged during the inquest that PC Harwood had faced a series of misconduct allegations in the 90s, including unlawful arrest, abuse of authority and discreditable conduct after being involved in what was described as a ‘road rage’ incident while he was off duty.
Instead of investigating his actions at the time, PC Harwood was allowed to retire on medical grounds in 2001. He was also subsequently able to re-join the Metropolitan police in 2004, something which would have been unthinkable if he had been previously found guilty of gross misconduct. This case is a prime example of why officers should not simply be allowed to resign or retire when facing serious allegations about their conduct.
Another reason for not allowing officers to resign is the public interest in officers facing and answering misconduct charges. Last year the Administrative Court underlined the importance of this when it upheld the decision of the Metropolitan police to maintain the suspension of an officer, PC Birks, in order to prevent his resignation from the force whilst the subject of an investigation into the death of Sean Rigg in August 2008 at Brixton Police Station.
In April 2014, PC Birks submitted his resignation to the Metropolitan police in order to take up a position in the Church of England. His request was initially accepted and it was only after the threat of legal action by Rigg’s sister that the police decided to first suspend PC Birks and then rescind their acceptance of his resignation.
Prior to the recent amendments, suspending an officer was a cumbersome prerequisite to any dismissal decision. This set of separate decisions was the only way to prevent an officer from resigning from a force. Indeed, a disconcerted PC Birks subsequently sought to challenge the decision of the police to continue his suspension.
In her ruling on PC Birks’ application, Mrs Justice Lang said “given the gravity of the allegations against [PC Birks], namely, that his actions caused or contributed to a death in custody, the public interest requires that he should remain in the force to answer any charges of misconduct which may be brought against him and the other officers involved.” The recent amendment to the Regulations likewise recognises the public interest in blocking officers from leaving the police when facing serious misconduct allegations.
Whilst the formal changes to the regulations are welcome, this is insufficient on its own to restore public confidence. Ensuring that police officers are held accountable for their actions to the public they serve requires an increase in actual disciplinary hearings and more openness and transparency in the whole process. Findings and sanctions at these hearings need to properly reflect the evidence heard, and the seriousness of the consequences for those affected by officers’ actions.