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How Independent is the Independent Police Complaints Commission?

The Mule | 05.08.2009 22:51 | G20 London Summit | Analysis | Repression

Public confidence in the police took a knock after the death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protests in April. As videos of police violence spread like wildfire on YouTube, their actions were roundly condemned by politicians and the media. Things have died down for the moment. With the MPs’ expenses scandal and Westminster going into meltdown police chiefs must have been quietly relieved when the public’s attention shifted elsewhere. Investigations into police misconduct continue at the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). But what exactly does the IPCC do? Is it effective? And who does it serve?

Formed in 2004 following the Police Reform Act of 2002, the IPCC replaced the widely discredited Police Complaints Authority (PCA). Like its predecessor, it oversees complaints made against the police. It can also carry out its own investigations into the most serious cases. But most of the time police forces (sorry, police ‘services’) still investigate themselves. Since April 2006 its supervisory role has expanded to include HM Revenue and Customs and the Serious Organised Crime Agency, and as of April 2008 the UK Borders Agency too.

Officially independent from the police, political parties and interest groups, its eighteen commissioners cannot be former police officers. Decisions are also supposed to be free from government interference. But the commissioners are appointed by the Home Secretary and funding comes from the Home Office. And if you were Home Secretary, would you appoint people who might seriously undermine confidence in law and order? Policing is very political after all. Moreover, most of the investigators are former or current police officers. How does it remain impartial, when its investigators have spent so much time on one side of the ‘thin blue line’?

There was early criticism before the IPCC was even set up. Inquest and the United Friends and Family Campaign (UFFC) were two groups who suggested the need to actively recruit from ethnic communities and from outside the police profession. They were ignored by the government. UFFC, a coalition of families fighting for justice for those who have died in police custody, believed the changes to the old PCA were “largely cosmetic”, rather than the “sweeping reforms” needed. The IPCC seemed little more than another piece of government spin, failing to do much more than add the word ‘independent’ onto its headed notepaper.

Five years down the line and these fears appear to have been founded. A year ago a High Court judge described IPCC thinking as “fatally flawed”. In one of the most recent stirs, an officer, who admitted changing his notes about the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, was found not guilty of “deliberate deception”. The shooting of the innocent de Menezes at Stockwell tube station has been the most high profile of the IPCC cases, which the Justice4Jean campaign has been constantly frustrated with. “This weak and woefully poor excuse of a watchdog must now be overhauled and replaced” was their reaction to this latest twist in the inquest.

The IPCC’s response to the death of Ian Tomlinson seemed to be similarly hopeless. First it unquestioningly reproduced inaccurate London Metropolitan Police statements, claiming that Tomlinson had died of natural causes, and only got into gear when a member of the public posted a clip on the internet of a riot policeman knocking him down.

Misleading IPCC press statements have unfortunately been pretty common over the years. Add to this the fact that no police officer has ever been convicted of murder or manslaughter, despite over 400 deaths in police custody in the last ten years alone, and the credibility of IPCC ‘independence’ looks fairly shaky. In February 2008 over 100 specialist lawyers quit the IPCC’s advisory board, due to the organisation’s “pitifully poor” response to concerns about favouritism to the police, incompetence, delays, and indifference and rudeness to those complaining. Even the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee admits the IPCC fails to adequately engage with complainants and local communities.

Many accept that the police have a ‘hard job’. Surveys have shown that the majority of people do trust the IPCC. But this isn’t the whole story. Many don’t complain. Reasons include people’s lack of confidence in themselves and the system, and lack of access to support and assistance. This is particularly true for black and Asian communities, where faith in the police is fragile at best thanks to experiences of widespread misconduct. Those who do complain often find the process frustrating and IPCC staff unhelpful and rude.

Complainants have no right to legal advice or representation, while police officers are given the full backing of their forces. No wonder so few challenges make headway. Increasingly people are resorting to suing the police in the courts instead. They see the IPCC as a toothless regulator which only serves to whitewash police wrongdoing. Complaints processes can drag on for years. Cases like de Menezes and Tomlinson are really the tip of the iceberg. Roger Sylvester, for instance, died in 1999 after being restrained by six police officers under the Mental Health Act. It was 2007 by the time the IPCC announced there would be no disciplinary actions against them, despite a High Court verdict of unlawful killing in 2003. His cousin described how the police had been allowed to “avoid scrutiny and accountability by the IPCC washing its hands of the case”.

Time and again the IPCC has proven ill-equipped to deal with allegations of police racism, brutality, unlawful arrests and even deaths in custody. In the rare cases when police misconduct is properly investigated (if they’re even reported), they tend to be covered up as ‘isolated incidents’ to be dealt with internally.

Scenes from the G20 show how many officers consider themselves above the law, while others don’t even seem to understand it properly. As recently as June, London Met officers were accused of torturing suspects in drug raids at the end of 2008. Meanwhile, videos posted online showed police in Nottingham tasering a man, already subdued, while another repeatedly punches him as he lies on the floor. At least ordinary people are getting on with it, filming the police at every turn. Unless the IPCC steps up its game, it may not be long before it goes the way of the old PCA. Good riddance? Many with experience of the IPCC would say yes. With anti-terror laws, eroding civil liberties and increasing police powers real accountability in policing could hardly be more urgent.

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Display the following 2 comments

  1. What next? — Suggestor
  2. Good article — Lynn Sawyer