‘Woefully underequipped and hamstrung’ was the frank assessment of the Independent Police Complaints Commission by the Home Affairs Select Committee. The police watchdog had ‘neither the powers nor resources’ required for the job it faced, the MPs reported.

The report’s finding won’t come as a surprise to many, as a catalogue of slow and inadequate responses to police failings in recent years has meant that public confidence in the Commission has collapsed.

Since the IPCC’s inception almost nine years ago, there have been more than 250 deaths in police custody.  No police officer has ever been convicted for causing such a death.

Take the infamous case of Ian Tomlinson, whose death the IPCC declined to begin an independent investigation into for more than a week – only taking over the inquiry from City of London police when the Guardian released footage proving there had been police contact.  Or Sean Rigg, whose family conducted their own investigation into his death after the IPCC found officers had acted ‘reasonably’ and ‘proportionately’. An inquest jury subsequently found unnecessary force had contributed to his demise, leading to the unprecedented launch by the IPCC of an external inquiry into its own handling of the case. And of course the shocking case of Mark Duggan, when the IPCC misled journalists into believing that he had fired shots at police; a mistake which did little to dampen the rising tension that would culminate in the 2011 Tottenham riots.

Such failings on the part of the IPCC led its very own chair, Ann Owers to declare:

‘We cannot do the job the public expect us to be able to do. We need more resources and powers.’

A lack of resources and powers to do an effective job:  this was the dominant narrative reported by the Home Affairs committee last week. But commentators have suggested that the problem with the IPCC runs deeper than this, and that it is in fact one of culture.

Lochlinn Parker, a lawyer specialising in actions against the police at Deighton Pierce Glynn solicitors, was candid in his reaction to the report:

‘It would be misleading to conclude that more resources would solve the problem. Our clients experience poor levels of decision making, a lack of curiosity and a tendency to defend police officers’ actions – this appears to be the culture of the IPCC.  The IPCC is failing to make effective use of the resources it does have.’ 

The Police Action Lawyers Group takes a similar view, blaming the IPCC’s ‘lacklustre’ investigations on a ‘culture of indifference and lack of will’.  They argue that investigators are not using their existing powers properly and ‘appear to confuse ‘independence’ with ‘neutrality’.’

Police Investigating the Police
A watchdog occupying a middle ground and shying away from controversial findings seems to me to be somewhat oxymoronic. Many have blamed the IPCC’s culture based on deference to the police on the fact that former police officers account for a large proportion of its 400-odd staff. According to a Panorama made by Mark Daly last year, 8 out of 9 IPCC senior investigators and just under half of their deputies are former police.  This being the case, the IPCC’s impartiality is clearly questionable.

As human rights lawyer Jules Carey, of Tuckers, puts it:

‘When you look at the number of ex-police officers working there you do sometimes wonder if their canteen feels like a police canteen. It’s almost like an old boys’ club.’

What next for the IPCC?
The report on the IPCC makes a number of constructive recommendations.  For example, it calls for IPCC investigators to take immediate control of crime scenes where there has been a death in custody, and for police officers to be interviewed about any serious custody incident under caution to ensure their evidence is later admissible in court and to provide them with the same protection as any suspected member of the public.

Such recommendations have been widely welcomed, and we can only hope that they will pave the way for change in the scrutiny of our police force.  Too many families have been let down by the persistent failure of the IPCC to properly and rigorously investigate deaths in police custody.

Keith Vaz MP was right in saying ‘when you are dealing with grieving people, you really have to go beyond the call of duty to help them.’  By repeatedly exonerating the police in spite of overwhelming evidence of serious wrongdoing the IPCC have failed to do so.

British society values its police force highly – we enshrine that value in law – and yet the only official mechanism of accountability we use for it is worryingly redolent of self-regulation, or at least regulation by a body inclined to empathise with officers.  It’s about time it was recognised that the police force cannot hold itself to account and something was done about it. Here’s hoping for the formation of a truly independent police watchdog that will robustly scrutinise the actions of the police and help to restore public confidence in the force.

 

Profile photo of Mary-Rachel McCabe About Mary-Rachel McCabe
Mary-Rachel McCabe is a pupil barrister at Doughty Street Chambers. She tweets @MaryRachel_McC

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7 Comments

  • Andy Travis February 10, 2013 5:41 am

    Police officers can already be interviewed under caution by the IPCC, this happens when they are a suspect in an incident. This is a very different situation from being a witness. Witnesses do not give statements to the police under caution whether written or recorded.
    Why should the police be treated any differently from other members of the public?
    I am not saying that the IPCC doesnt need to be reformed in some way but we are talking about fairly basic rights.
    Presumably if police were to be interviewed under caution then they would be entitled to legal advice as per PACE. This would present some issues if the interview took place near the start of an investigation as the officers would not have any access to disclosure and could therefore arguably be justified as going ‘no comment’. It could be argued that no inference could be drawn from this no comment interview as disclose had not been given to the officer prior to interview. This is something that happens all the item in custody suits up an down the country.

    The danger her is that it actually works to slow investigations down as no one would be providing witness statements everyone would be interviewed under caution. Surely the answer is to have better resources for the IPCC so that they can conclude the cases quicker.

    As for the number of police officers employed by them. Well what other occupation in the country has an abundance of highly trained and experienced criminal investigators? I suspect that there isn’t one.

    It may surprise you to know that many officers are equally unhappy with the IPCC on the basis that they take a long time to investigate matters. Being investigated is not a nice position to be in, it is stressful and made worse by being dragged out often for many months.

    The fact that police officers haven’t been charged over any of the 240 deaths in custody is I would argue not down solely to the current states of the IPCC and I suggest that reforms mentioned to effectively make all officers give evidence under caution would actually make the situation worse. I cannot connect on the individual cases as I have little knowledge of them. But to lay the blame just at the door of the IPCC is I suggest too simplistic a view point.

    In changing the make up of the IPCC we need caution, it needs to be an organisation trusted not just by the public but by the police as well. Lets look at the recent taser incident outside Buckingham Palace. Sophie Kahn a solicitor advocate actually suggested on Twitter that it was staged. Cherry Healy on This Morning stated that there are other options such as CS gas. This shows a distinct lack of understanding of the situation and risks that the officer faced. It illustrates that those in the IPCC need to have a real understanding of what the police actually have to deal with on a daily basis. I would suggest that there should be a mechanism to allow decisions taken by the IPCC to be challenged and scrutinised by a relevant body to ensure impartiality.

  • Satish Sekar March 18, 2013 1:00 pm

    I have had experience of the lackustre performance of the IPCC. Thet were informed at the start that the department thgey allow to investigate complaints was actually the one being complained about. First the Professional Standards Department miscategorised the complaint. That wasted 5 months. The response of the IPCC was to give the same department another chance. The PSD then concluded that it was right all along despite the IPCC telling them they were wrong. That decision that they were entitled to do what they wanted – the law says otherwise – was made by the very individual complained about. The IPCC’s response was to give that department a third chance! How can they expect any confidence or respect when they brazenly duck their responsibilities like this. I am initiating legal proceedings over the original issue which has serious implications for journalism and policing. The IPCC has proved to be a total waste of space and time. It has no right to call itself independent when it shows itself to be vacuous and disingenuous as it has here, giving that PSD a third bite of the cherry!

  • michael coughtrey July 20, 2015 11:41 am

    I have absolute proof that the IPCC will protect the police even when they are proven criminals.

  • Jo November 11, 2015 8:57 pm

    Don’t put hopes in the IPCC, the police have broken the law and they dismissed it!

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  • Kev January 19, 2016 7:15 pm

    And it is still happening today,what a surprise or is it. The police cannot be allowed to continue policing its self.
    If you want job security in this day and age become a copper because you can break the law of the land and get away with it.stay a member of the public break the law they will do you to make the figures and performance look good the used to be you can trust a policeman how far from the truth is that.

  • Mohammed-Momin Ali August 7, 2016 10:02 pm

    The ippc are just as bad as the DPS, A police officer commited a ilegal act and they said it was reasonable. What kind of biased rubish was that?. There needs to be a truly independent regulaotity body to investigate the police. Also financial help should be made avaliable to take the police to court if they have commited unlawful acts.

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