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Quality of Service - A review of the investigation of complaints against the police in Scotland


Quality of Service
A review of the investigation of complaints against the police in Scotland


1 The examination of the way in which complaints against the police is addressed is not a new phenomenon. The police service has been subject to much scrutiny in this area. One of the drivers for the Royal Commission into policing (1962) was a concern around this very issue. HMIC has itself conducted two thematic inspections on the handling of complaints against the police. The first of these was undertaken in 1992 by the then HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Mr John Boyd. Its findings and recommendations played a significant part in the subsequent reform of much of the legislation governing police performance and conduct at all levels in the service.

2 The second was requested by the Scottish Executive in determining its response to the recommendations of the report into the death of Stephen Lawrence and, in particular, Recommendation 58 which concerns the investigation of serious complaints against the police. This resulted in a report entitled "A Fair Cop?", which was published in April 2000. Like its earlier counterpart, it provided a series of recommendations and suggestions intended to strengthen and improve the existing framework for the investigation of complaints. A number of benefits can be identified as having come from this inspection and report.

3 There is now clear evidence that complaints are being investigated thoroughly. HMIC, in the course of its planned programme of inspection of forces, always examines the way forces are dealing with complaints and has the opportunity to examine individual cases. In its oversight of complaints as laid out by the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994, Section 61, HMIC also examines, in detail, individual cases where members of the public have expressed dissatisfaction with some aspect of the complaint handling process. HMIC's examination of some 92 cases referred to it during 2002-03 highlights the thoroughness of the complaints investigation. It also confirms the view that forces, in responding to complainers, have taken cognisance of "A Fair Cop?" and are seeking to provide as full an explanation as possible to those complaining.

4 "A Fair Cop?" succeeded in raising awareness in the complaints process and this has encouraged debate. In response to the report, the Scottish Executive published a consultation paper in July 2001 which put forward a number of proposals for enhancing the independence of the police complaints system. Following consultation, the Executive is currently considering options for change. It is committed to setting up an independent complaints body within the lifetime of this Parliament.

5 In identifying the positive developments that have arisen from this detailed scrutiny, there is no room for complacency. At the January 2003 meeting of the Police Advisory Board for Scotland (PABS), concerns were raised regarding aspects of the complaints process, in particular in relation to misconduct hearings and the associated appeals process. A view was taken that the time was right for HMIC to carry out a thorough review of progress made by the Scottish police service and partners in addressing the recommendations and suggestions contained within "A Fair Cop?", as well as addressing those issues raised at PABS. Like its predecessors, this report is also intended to stimulate and contribute to the ongoing debate around the investigation of complaints against the police in Scotland.

6 The inspection was carried out initially, under the direction of Sir Roy Cameron, then HMCIC, and thereafter his successor Mr Andrew Brown. Field work was undertaken by Mr Kenneth McInnes, Assistant Inspector of Constabulary, and Mrs Jane Irvine, HM Lay Inspector of Constabulary, supported by staff officers at HMIC.

Terms of Reference

7 As part of the inspection process, a steering group was convened consisting of representatives from the police staff associations, the Scottish Executive, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and senior managers (SOLACE). The group agreed the following terms of reference:

  • to review progress made by the Scottish police service and other stakeholders in addressing recommendations and suggestions made by HMIC in its thematic inspection report "A Fair Cop?" (2000)
  • to examine areas of concern in relation to existing legislation regarding conduct within the Scottish police service and, with reference to other discipline frameworks, to consider options for improvement in the light of the changing needs of the 21st Century.

8 The specific objectives of the inspection were to:

  • establish how far the service has progressed in implementing the 18 recommendations and 12 suggestions contained in Part I of "A Fair Cop?"
  • examine the views of internal and external stakeholders in relation to the five suggestions contained in Part III of "A Fair Cop?"
  • identify options for change
  • assess the impact of related employment law
  • examine the operation of other disciplinary systems
  • identify instances of good practice
  • make recommendations designed to ensure the continuous improvement of the service provided by the Scottish police service.

9 This review did not specifically address the issue of enhanced independence within the police complaints system. As referred to earlier, an extensive public consultation exercise has already been carried out and the outcomes from that exercise will be announced by the Executive in due course.


10 The Inspection began with an environmental scan and literature review to place the project in context. A written inspection protocol was prepared and circulated to the Scottish Executive, the eight Scottish forces and the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland (ACPOS). Detailed responses along with supporting material were received and analysed. This process assisted in fieldwork which was undertaken between September and November 2003.

11 All police forces were visited and a cross section of staff interviewed. In every force, deputy chief constables, heads of Complaints/Professional Standards departments and representatives of the Superintendents Association and Police Federation were interviewed. In addition, a cross section of investigating officers, operational commanders and constables was seen in focus group settings. Alongside visits to forces, the opportunity was taken to speak to Conveners and Clerks of police authorities, as well as Area Procurators Fiscal who, following reorganisation of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS), have replaced Regional Procurators Fiscal in assuming responsibility for all criminal allegations against police officers. In one force area, lay visitors, who carry out independent, unannounced visits to police custody facilities, were also seen.

12 At a national level, Crown Office and the Scottish Executive Justice Department were consulted. External stakeholders were also given the opportunity to contribute, including the Scottish Consumer Council, the Scottish Human Rights Centre and the Commission for Racial Equality. Comparative visits were made to Northern Ireland and England where meetings took place with the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, representatives of the Association of Chief Police Officers for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the Police Complaints Authority and its then shadow body, the new Independent Police Complaints Commission. Internationally, a comparative visit was made to the Boston Police Department, USA. In particular, the opportunity was taken to study that force's use of Personnel Analysis Meetings (PAM), a holistic approach to people management.

13 HMIC, in the course of recent thematics, has commissioned independent research. On this occasion, the Centre for Public Policy and Management, Robert Gordon University, carried out a review of complaints and discipline procedures in the public sector 1. The findings of the review have been invaluable in informing parts of this report. HMIC also sought advice from its lawyers in examining processes from a legal perspective.