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.
Following several highly public controversies, including the murder of Sarah Everard by a serving police officer, the Home Office asked HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) to look into the capability of the police to vet and monitor officers (PDF).
In 2019, the Government committed to recruit 20,000 additional police officers by March 2023. HMICFRS raised concern that the size and speed of this recruitment could add to the risk of officers joining who don’t meet the standards expected.
How does the police vet its officers?
Every applicant must get vetting clearance before being employed into the police and have this renewed every 10 years (or earlier). This is to identify any ‘adverse information’ about the applicant that could pose a risk, such as to national security and public safety or to public confidence in the police.
Each force is responsible for vetting its own recruits. The College of Policing (CoP) provides a Code of Practice and a guidance on vetting produces and decision-making to encourage consistency and a minimum standard across forces. Forces’ vetting departments are expected to follow this, but it isn’t a legal requirement.
Vetting managers should consider factors that allow them to assess an applicant’s honesty, integrity, reliability and overall suitability to work in the police. This includes:
- confirming employment history
- signs of financial vulnerability such as debts or bankruptcy
- past allegations, cautions, or convictions. Even if there was no formal outcome, vetting managers should consider the number, severity and credibility of past allegations against an applicant and why those didn’t progress
- relatives and associates who may pose a risk, eg involvement in offending which suggests the applicant might face adverse pressure if they were to become an officer
- social media use to ensure the reputation of the police service
A caution or conviction does not mean automatic rejection unless the person received a custodial sentence or has been a registered sex offender. The CoP’s guidance also advises that applicants should be rejected for offences related to domestic abuse, where vulnerable people were targeted, or that were motivated by hate or discrimination. Otherwise, vetting managers are expected to make a judgement on a case-to-case basis.
A vetting department could choose to give provisional and/or conditional vetting clearance with a risk management plan. This allows precautionary measures to be made to mitigate identified risks, such as extra supervision or for the individual to have time to address the concern, eg by paying off debts.
What concerns have been raised about police vetting?
HMICFRS reviewed vetting processes in eight police forces and 725 vetting files. The report highlighted concerns with the consistency in vetting and decision-making across forces, the skills and capacity in vetting departments to cope with demands of the recent police recruitment drive, and the overall high “risk appetite” that some forces had when recruiting.
The findings included:
- Employment history: some forces were no longer getting employment or character references for new recruits.
- Social media: forces were not rejecting applicants who had used language that was potentially discriminatory, inflammatory, or extremist on social media but were instead addressing these concerns by giving “words of advice to applicants regarding their future use of social media”.
- Appeals: applicants can appeal if they are rejected during vetting. The process for this varies across forces and HMICFRS found examples where appeals – particularly in forces that had set up appeal panels – had turned over “sound vetting decisions”.
HMICFRS found officers that had passed vetting despite having allegations against them or convictions for robbery, indecent exposure, possession of controlled drugs, drink-driving and domestic abuse-related assaults.
The Inspectorate raised concern that too much weight was put on the how long ago the offences were and giving applicants “the benefit of the doubt”. In these cases, it found there was not enough regard to the CoP’s guidance on assessing risk, the impact on public safety and police reputation, and where there wasn’t a formal conviction why an arrest might not have proceeded further.
In some forces, vetting managers did not consider whether the resources and capability of counter-corruption units and HR were sufficient to manage those presenting a known risk. HMICFRS said that vetting managers should be rejecting applicants if they cannot be sure that the force can effectively mitigate the risks they present.
What needs to change?
Rape Crisis responded to the report saying the police need a “cultural overhaul”. Refuge, a charity supporting women and children experiencing domestic violence, also called for “radical reform and a zero-tolerance policy” to restore trust in the police.
HMICFRS made many recommendations for improving vetting guidance, risk assessment processes, and quality assurance. The Government said it expects all the recommendations to be “acted on as a matter of urgency”.
However, challenges remain with resource and capability to address the issue. Martin Hewitt, Chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, told the Home Affairs Select Committee that the vetting “process is largely manual” and needs to become “much more automated”.
Festus Akinbusoye from the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners also said vetting departments are “massively overwhelmed”, leaving some prioritising between vetting new joiners and re-vetting existing officers.
About the author: Lauren Nickolls is a researcher at the House of Commons Library specialising in policing and criminal justice.
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