‘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.
Mary-Rachel McCabe is a pupil barrister at Doughty Street Chambers. She tweets @MaryRachel_McC