This research briefing provides an overview of current legislation and guidance in relation to the policing of protests and discusses debates surrounding recent changes in this area.
Several high-profile incidents have generated concern about conduct and behavioural standards in the Metropolitan Police Service (‘the Met’). These include the response to the murders of Bibaa Henry, Nicole Smallman, and Sabina Nessa; the murder of Sarah Everard by a Met officer; and behaviour of officers at Charing Cross station.
In particular, the dismissal process has come under scrutiny following cases where Met officers have continued to serve despite multiple allegations against them.
How can officers be dismissed for misconduct?
Each police officer individually holds the Office of Constable, rather than being employees of a police force. This means employment law, including the ability to dismiss employees, does not apply in the same way to officers as it does to other employees.
The police disciplinary system consists of internal processes within police forces, but each force must follow statutory rules set out in The Police (Conduct) Regulations 2020.
When it comes to misconduct, officers can only be dismissed if their actions are deemed to reach the threshold of ‘gross misconduct’. This is defined as a breach of the police professional standards so serious that it potentially warrants an officer’s dismissal from the service.
Before an officer can be dismissed there must be a conduct investigation and a misconduct hearing. In most cases, forces are responsible for investigating their own officers and the evidence presented at hearings. However, since 2016, misconduct hearings have had independent legally qualified chairs (LQCs) from outside the police who have the final decision on dismissal.
While in some circumstances misconduct hearings can be accelerated, there is no ability to automatically dismiss officers for certain behaviours, including criminal conduct or failing their re-vetting.
The Casey Review
Baroness Casey recently published her review into the Met’s standards of behaviour and internal culture.
She found dismissal for misconduct “has fallen significantly in recent years”. She highlighted issues with the legal framework, describing it as an “overly complex” and “quasi-judicial” system that is more like “a criminal justice process with a high evidential bar” than an internal system for upholding standards.
However, she also raised concerns to the Home Affairs Select Committee over the way the Met handles internal misconduct reports (those raised by Met officers, staff or their family members), saying it “could do an awful lot within the regulations and rules they already have” to address misconduct. Her review highlights the importance of addressing these concerns to restore public trust in the Met.
The Met’s handling of misconduct
Baroness Casey’s review team told the Home Affairs Select Committee that the police regulation’s definition of gross misconduct leaves scope for interpretation and the Met is too cautious in the behaviour it considers gross misconduct. Cases that are not considered gross misconduct cannot then be considered for dismissal.
As the Casey Review’s final report notes, too often behaviour “which in most other organisations would lead to instant dismissal or serious disciplinary action”, in the Met is addressed through less severe, internal measures like “reflective practices”.
Patterns of behaviour
Baroness Casey raised concern that the Met was considering each conduct issue separately, meaning it was failing to identify “repeated or patterns of unacceptable behaviour” and potentially missing “escalating misconduct”.
She highlighted an (unpublished) Met report which found 24 instances “where the same officer had been investigated on two or more occasions for behaviour linked to sexual misconduct and domestic abuse” but previous allegations had not been considered when deciding whether to bring a case for alleged misconduct.
Inconsistent use of the misconduct procedure
Baroness Casey also found racial disproportionality in the Met’s misconduct system. In 2021/22, Black officers and staff were 81% more likely than their White counterparts to have internal misconduct allegations brought against them.
Only 20% of allegations related to breaches of equality and diversity rules, and 29% involving sexual misconduct, were deemed to have a possible misconduct case to answer for. This compares with 33% of allegations overall.
Baroness Casey recommended the Met establishes an “independent, multi-disciplinary team” to reform its handling of misconduct cases concerning “sexual misconduct, domestic abuse and discrimination.”
Action being taken
Met Commissioner, Sir Mark Rowley, said the Met fully accepts “the diagnosis of the report” and is “determined to deliver the transformation required”.
The Met conducted rapid reviews of over 1,000 previous allegations of sexual offending or domestic violence made against officers and staff between 2012 and 2022 as part of Operation Onyx.
In an open letter to the Home Secretary on 3 April 2023, Sir Mark Rowley confirmed that in 689 of the 1,000 cases, the original allegation will be re-investigated more fully for “new or missed lines of enquiry”, 196 will face formal risk management measures, and 246 will face no further action.
It also said that in the last six months, 51 Met officers were dismissed for gross misconduct (or would have been but the officer resigned or retired). In the same period, the Met concluded 431 gross misconduct investigations, up from 266 in the previous six-month period. 150 of these will proceed to a misconduct hearing.
Debate over dismissal powers
In April 2023, Sir Mark Rowley said that there are “hundreds of people” who shouldn’t be serving in the Met that he can’t dismiss. He called for changes to the regulations to give chief constables this power instead of LQCs.
Not all stakeholders agree. The Police Federation said LQCs make the misconduct process “fairer and more transparent”. The National Association of LQCs argued in written evidence to Home Affairs Select Committee that giving dismissal powers back to the police will not improve outcomes or public confidence in the system. It argued that current public concerns “such as violence against women and girls, misogyny and racism amongst police officers” pre-date 2016 when LQCs were brought in, and these were still not properly addressed.
The association accuses policing stakeholders of “seeking to blame … lenient LQCs” but in its view the challenges lie in the quality of investigation and strength of the evidence presented at hearings.
The Home Office launched an internal review into the process of dismissing officers in January 2023 which will consider this issue.
- House of Commons Library, Police complaints and discipline.
- House of Commons Library, Police vetting: How it works and calls for change
- House of Commons Library, Reports of misogyny and sexual harassment in the Metropolitan Police
About the author: Lulu Meade is an enquiry executive at the House of Commons Library
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