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The police complaints and discipline systems are key to police accountability. They facilitate the public and those within policing to raise concerns about the management of police forces and the behaviour of individual officers. The systems are designed to provide a fair and effective way for these concerns to be addressed. Public confidence in the systems is vital to securing overall confidence in the police.

The systems have long been the subject of political scrutiny. They are notoriously complicated despite repeated attempts to simplify them with reform. The independence of the systems (or perceived lack thereof) has also been the subject of repeated criticism.

Recent reforms

Between 2014 and 2020 Coalition and Conservative Governments undertook the latest major reforms of the systems. The implementation of these reforms took some time and the reformed systems became fully operational in February 2020.The reforms were wide-ranging but perhaps the most significant changes are:

  • The transformation of the previous Independent Police Complaints Commission into the new Independent Office for Police Conduct. The IOPC has a new governance structure. It also has new powers to initiate police complaints and direct certain police investigations into the conduct of police personnel.
  • The introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) into the complaints system. The offices of directly elected Police and Crime Commissioners (and the Deputy Mayor in London and Manchester) are now responsible for reviewing the complaint handling of forces when certain complainants are unhappy. They can also choose to further extend their responsibilities for police complaints. However, only three PCCs have so far chosen to play a greater role in handling complaints against their local force.
  • The simplification of the complaints system. Many complex aspects of the old system have been repealed or replaced. The overall effect of these reforms is to reduce the number of pinch points in the system where complaint handling could get held up.
  • Introducing some independence into the police discipline system. Misconduct hearings (the most serious police discipline procedure) are now typically held in public. They are now chaired by independent legally qualified persons rather than senior police officers.

It will take time for the reforms to bed in. It will therefore be some time before the overall impact of these changes can be accurately assessed.

Police complaints: the basics

There are three key actors in the police complaints system:

  • The Independent Office of Police Conduct (IOPC) is the body that oversees the system and conducts independent investigations into the most serious police complaint and conduct matters.
  • Police force Professional Standards Departments (PSDs) include specialist teams responsible for handling most complaint matters for their force.
  • Police and Crime Commissioners (or in Manchester and London the Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime) are responsible for monitoring their forces complaint handling. They also conduct complaint reviews in some cases and can choose to extend their responsibilities further.

The police complaints process has four stages:

  • Recording: A decision to record a complaint is made. Recorded complaints must be handled in line with statutory rules set out in Schedule 3 of the Police Reform Act 2002 (as amended).
  • Referral: A decision to refer a recorded complaint to the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) is made. The IOPC decide if referred complaints should be investigated and if so how.
  • Handling: A decision as to whether and how recorded complaints should be investigated is made. An outcome is either decided without a formal investigation or an investigation takes place which informs an outcome.
  • Review: Most individuals with recorded complaints can ask for their complaint to be reviewed if they are unhappy with the outcome decided at the end of handling stage. Reviews are undertaken by the relevant PCC/ Deputy Mayor or the IOPC depending on the nature of the complaint. A review can result in changes to the complaint outcome or a decision to send a complaint back to the referral or handling stage.

Decisions at every stage must be “reasonable and proportionate”. What is reasonable and proportionate will depend on the specifics of the complaint. Those handling complaints should consider several factors including; the seriousness of the allegation, the potential for learning, how resource intensive taking the complaint forward will be alongside their overarching responsibilities to scrutinise the police and hold them accountable. Police complaint decisions should be fair, effective, impartial and evidence based.

Police discipline: the basics

The police disciplinary system consists of internal processes within police forces. It is structured by statutory rules set out in the Police Act 1996 (as amended) and secondary legislation made under it. Unlike the complaints system (which is overseen by the IOPC) there is no single independent body that provides oversight of the discipline system, though PCCs should hold chief constables accountable for their handling of disciplinary issues.

Not all poor policing behaviour engages the discipline system. Other processes, either a reflective practice review process or an unsatisfactory performance procedure, are initiated when poor behaviour is identified that does not warrant disciplinary action.

  • A reflective practice review process is a formal police process. It is initiated when police conduct has fallen short of what is expected of those who work in policing but is not serious enough to warrant disciplinary action.
  • Unsatisfactory performance procedure is a police HR process. It is initiated when members of police personnel are unable to perform their duties to a satisfactory level.

Disciplinary proceedings are initiated when there is a credible allegation of a breach of the policing standards of professional behaviour that is serious enough to warrant disciplinary action. Conduct that warrants disciplinary action is that which ‘damages public confidence in policing’. It is behaviour that learning from alone would not be a sufficient response “given the gravity or seriousness of the matter”.

Officers whose behaviour is found to amount to misconduct or gross misconduct at a disciplinary proceeding are sanctioned. Depending on the circumstances they may be issued a formal warning, have their rank reduced or be dismissed from the police service. Officers dismissed are barred from working in the police.  

Police HR, conduct and discipline procedures are designed to “encourage a culture of learning and development” within the police. All forces should have procedures in place to share learnings from individual cases.

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