The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) has issued an eight page draft statutory guidance to the police service on achieving best evidence in death or serious injury matters.
The guidance (PDF), which relates to incidents such as deaths in police custody or during armed arrests, says that any conferring between officers has ‘the potential to undermine the integrity of their evidence and to damage public confidence in the investigation’ and, once key witnesses have been identified, they should be instructed ‘not to speak (or otherwise communicate) about the incident with each other, or any other potential witnesses, both before and after they have given their accounts’. The guidance advises that officers should be kept separate until their account has been obtained and before they go off duty.
Whilst the IPCC says that key police witnesses will be expected to assist in the investigation, it accepts that the officer’s right to obtain legal advice and the right to refuse to provide any statement remains unaffected.
This last paragraph highlights the conundrum with which the IPCC and the police service finds itself faced following deaths such as that of Azelle Rodney. An armed officer charged with the duty to protect the lives of colleagues and members of the public, may find their split second actions left wanting under scrutiny, leading to a potential prosecution for murder.
Following what may have been a highly adrenalized and perhaps terrifying incident, an officer may want time to gather his thoughts before committing himself to a statement which may find him in court later on.
Against this has to be set the concept of open justice, and the accountability of a public body authorised to kill people in the course of their duties.
There is no easy answer.
In future, given that some senior officers believe the IPCC is set to become ‘more aggressive’ in its dealings with police witnesses to deaths, many may think it’s not worth the risk to become an armed officer.
The IPCC may have wanted to wait for the outcome of a current study by memory expert Gisli Gudjonsson, professor of forensic psychology at King’s College, London. The study involved an exercise whereby firearms officers from 16 forces took part in a simulated terrorist incident.
During the exercise the scenario changed a number of times, to include a robbery with a person shot, a hostage and armed suspects. Cameras recorded the exercise to check against the officers’ later statements, whilst heart monitors measured their physical stress levels.
The officers taking part, plus a control group to provide a comparison, were then asked to write their statements under a number of different conditions. Some were allowed to confer whilst others were told to make individual statements.
A further group made statements individually and were then allowed to make any necessary changes having conferred with colleagues. Each of the groups were covertly video recorded to show how much time they spent conferring and whether mistakes were produced by doing so.
It is hoped that the research will show which method reveals the most accurate record of the incident, although it is of course subject to individual variation according to the witness’s own perception.
A previous report commissioned by the Metropolitan Police Federation into ‘focused attention’ found that officers who were allowed to confer recorded fewer facts with a higher degree of accuracy whilst those who did not, recalled more information with a greater degree of error.
Whether officers are allowed to confer or not, without independent scrutiny within the police station, the system is still reliant upon the police policing themselves.
Kim Evans has spent 31 years working at the sharp end of the criminal justice system - the last ten years in the cells of East Sussex police stations defending people in custody. ‘I'd guesstimate that 90% of my clients have a personality disorder, mental health issues, and, or, serious substance addiction be it drugs or alcohol,’ she says. Kim started her career at the Metropolitan Police as a uniformed officer in 1979.