We have a new website go to gov.scot

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

Part II: The Way Ahead
Chapter 3 Fit for Purpose?


3.1 The last decade was a period of change for the complaints against the police process in Scotland. A series of measures have been implemented, all intended to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the police complaints system both in the eyes of the public and those who make up the Scottish police service. These changes culminated, in recent times, in "A Fair Cop?", a piece of work that significantly impacted upon the complaints against the police process and the debate that surrounded it.

3.2 "A Fair Cop?" sought to offer proposals which were capable of immediate implementation and Part I of this report has outlined progress made in implementing those proposals. As has been commented upon, much has been done but more is left to do. Perceptions of unfairness persist both externally, by members of the public who seek to complain about police actions, and internally, by police officers and staff who are complained against, which require to be addressed. Whether or not they are misplaced, perceptions are corrosive and, if left unchallenged, can impact on the confidence of all those involved in complaints against the police, both internally and externally.

3.3 As the last paragraph has alluded to, at the very heart of the police complaints system is an element which, it can be argued, the current process driven system can ignore, namely the individual. Police officers hold a special position in society exercising power and authority over others. It is quite right that they are held to account if they abuse that power. Equally, members of the public who are subject to abuse are entitled to recourse to a robust system that calls the wrongdoer to account.

3.4 However, this narrow focus on a crime and punishment model, in practice, serves neither party well nor does it address the issue of quality of service. As a result, the police officer can be subject to a complaint which has little to do with personal culpability and much to do with poor systems and procedures. The member of the public, in turn, finds him/herself ensnared in an often long drawn out process that rarely produces satisfaction in terms of the outcome. Rarely will either come away from the experience satisfied or expressing confidence.

A Modern Complaints System

3.5 HMIC believes there is considerable scope for introducing a modern complaints system that includes the following benefits:

  • flexibility - providing an ability to respond that offers options appropriate to the complaint
  • ease of access and use - clear and easy to understand
  • effectiveness - a system that produces the right result quickly
  • responsiveness - a system that meets the full range of demands upon it
  • credibility - respected by the public
  • cost effectiveness - a system that does not take up a disproportionate amount of police time

3.6 A complaints system which satisfied these criteria would be a significant addition to the service's commitment to continuous improvement and service delivery and would have a positive impact on public and staff alike. No mention is made of discipline or misconduct because misconduct should not be regarded as a necessary follow-up to a complaint, only one of many options the service has in dealing with complaints. A comment by East Renfrewshire Council 2 sums this up. "Complaints are positively welcome. Complaints should be looked upon as a management tool to help improve services and their reporting and analysis should be regarded as good management practice.".

Support or Straightjacket?

3.7 This report makes it clear that current efforts by forces to investigate complaints are thorough and professional reflecting their expertise in evidence gathering from a variety of disciplines. As referred to earlier, of the 2823 recorded complaints against the police during 2002-03, only 92 (3%) were referred to HMIC by dissatisfied complainers. HMIC always examines the form of enquiry or investigation to verify that it is thorough, that all relevant evidence has been collated and witnesses identified and interviewed. In addition, HMIC checks that enquiry or investigating officers are impartial and free from bias. Finally, that responses are fair, objective, accurately reflect the enquiry or investigation findings and are provided within a reasonable timescale and in a manner that ensures members of the public fully understand how responses to complaints have been arrived at. For the most part, HMIC has found the enquiries carried out to have been detailed and exhaustive and, where adverse comment is made, it is mainly around minor procedural issues or oversights.

3.8 Irrespective of the efficiency of processes however, and acknowledging the special position of the police as a disciplined service of which the public has high expectations, it is the belief of HMIC that the current system for dealing with complaints has become a straightjacket in which the approach to addressing complaints has become inextricably linked with misconduct procedures leading forces to consider complaints almost exclusively as a mechanism for establishing individual culpability. While forces do, as a consequence, give regard to the systems and procedures which may have been at fault, the unnecessary association with misconduct inevitably means that less regard is given to this important aspect of continuous improvement. The only definition of a complaint formally used by forces reinforces this relationship and offers no scope for organisational culpability.

"Any complaint made by or on behalf of any person against one or more on duty members of a police force and from which it may be reasonably inferred that any act or omission which was made or committed by any of the individuals concerned amounts, or may amount, to a criminal offence or professional misconduct."

3.9 This view is supported by research undertaken on behalf of HMIC by Robert Gordon University, who undertook a comparative study of complaints and disciplinary procedures, mainly in the public sector and primarily examining two sources, local authorities and the National Health Service 3. Some of the main findings of that study are detailed within the next section.

The Nature of a Complaint

3.10 The definition of a police complaint 4 contains four key elements:

  • a class of behaviour by officers
  • an accusation of misconduct, and any response begins from the need to treat complaints as such
  • against named officers, not against the service
  • intimately linked with disciplinary procedures.

3.11 By contrast, complaints within the public sector organisations reviewed 5, differ materially:

  • Complaints are an expression of dissatisfaction. Such an expression does not necessarily relate to the actions of individual officers; it may be concerned with a much wider range of action.
  • Complaints require a response. Complaints against the police cannot, currently, be taken as requiring a response to complainants, because they have to be treated as accusations of misconduct against individual officers who have statutory rights which cannot be ignored.
  • Complaints are made against the service, not against individuals. This is not just about 'service issues' in the sense in which the police use the term; it is based on a fundamentally different understanding of the nature of the official to the public. If an official acts improperly, the responsibility rests in the first instance with the service, which is responsible for that person's training and conduct, not with the individual officer. Officials act on behalf of the service and complaints, consequently, lie against the service.
  • Complaints are distinct from disciplinary action. There are strong practical arguments for making a clear distinction. One local authority referred to is careful to distinguish complaints procedures from accusations against members of staff. "A 'blame culture' must be avoided at all costs since this encourages defensiveness and can be counter-productive."

3.12 Reference has been made to the special position of the police. It is not just the service that is in a special position but its officers. HMIC acknowledges the special status and duties of police officers as an independent office holder. The status of the police constable is "original, not delegated and is exercised at his own discretion by virtue of his office"6. Arguably, it is this status more than anything that has driven the service to adopt a complaints system that focuses on the individual and his/her culpability. It is therefore not just a simple process of discarding one set of principles and replacing it with another. Rather, HMIC would like to see a system that maintains a robust mechanism for dealing with the individual actions of officers, where it is appropriate to do so, but recognises that complaints should be regarded, in the first instance, for what they are, an expression of dissatisfaction by a member of the public about the police force concerned.

3.13 A case study of an anonomised complaint referred to HMIC perhaps best serves to illustrate the inflexibility of the current system and the principles outlined above.


A complaint recorded by a Scottish force centred on a case of vehicle obstruction. In this case, a member of the public complained to the police because a vehicle had been parked across his garage entrance preventing access. The attending officer decided that the vehicle should be removed utilising the force's vehicle recovery scheme and impounded. This is not an uncommon scenario throughout Scotland. On this occasion, however, the owner of the vehicle subsequently wrote to the force complaining regarding the police action and a failure to allow her to remove it or inform her of its removal.

The force recorded the contents of the letter as a complaint against the police and attempted through a local supervisor to conciliate the complaint. Attempts at conciliation were unsuccessful and so the force felt compelled, in line with current legislation, to appoint an investigating officer. The officer who had decided to have the vehicle removed was formally served with investigation forms, as called for by the Police (Conduct) (Scotland) Regulations 1996, indicating that a charge of neglect of duty was being investigated as a result of an alleged failure to contact the owner prior to and after removal. A very thorough investigation ensued in which statements were taken and computer related enquiries relative to the incident documented. The investigating officer concluded there had been no neglect on the part of the officer who had correctly followed force policy and procedure, which did not require the owner of a vehicle to be contacted after it had been removed. The force then responded to the complainer saying that there was no evidence of neglect on the officer's part and also outlining force policy and procedure for the complainer's information.

Not satisfied with this, the complainer then referred the complaint to HMIC for review. This review concurred with the conclusions reached by the investigating officer and the subsequent response of the Deputy Chief Constable.

3.14 It is important here to emphasise that HMIC is not being critical of the force's response. It applied the conduct regulations in an appropriate manner. However, from beginning to end, the whole process took in excess of 10 months and not without significant costs to the force. The complaint represented a fairly simple set of circumstances which, in the absence of existing regulations, could have been treated as a quality of service issue with learning outcomes, if appropriate, to inform force policies and procedures. Instead, it involved an officer being subject to personal investigation over a lengthy period of time. In attempting to be rigorous in its approach to the recording and processing of complaints against the police, the force has, not unreasonably, recorded the letter received as a complaint against an officer and not a quality of service issue relative to the force. Once recorded as a complaint, however, the force naturally focuses on individual fault rather than organisational deficiencies.

3.15 This is not an isolated example of the use of the current complaints system. There are many instances where the full weight of the conduct regulations, in the absence of any alternative process, is used to address procedural complaints. HMIC is not suggesting a softening of the police complaints process but rather is advocating a complaints process which focuses on answering the complaint quickly and effectively and in which misconduct is divorced from the complaints process and becomes simply one option, where appropriate, rather than the only option. For example, the Police (Efficiency) (Scotland) Regulations 1996 were intended to impact on officers identified as under performing. Infrequently utilised, they represent a possible alternative.

Counting the Cost

3.16 The complaints process and the associated investigatory work that it sets in motion do not come cheaply. While no comprehensive costing regime exists throughout the eight Scottish forces, an area HMIC has already identified as requiring further attention by forces ( paragraph 1.67), HMIC has attempted to draw together a picture of the financial implications. The estimates used must be regarded simply as that - estimates - but, if anything, HMIC is satisfied that the figures produced here are an underestimate rather than an overestimate.

3.17 The figures used are based on data provided by forces specifically for this review, in relation to a series of headings provided by HMIC. The results are shown in the following table.

Table 1: Investigating Complaints - The Costs

Budgetary Head


Departmental Staff


Non Departmental Staff


DCC Involvement


External Force Enquiries




Explanatory Notes

  • Departmental staff costs include both police officers and support staff. Specifically excluded are staff who are dedicated to internal professional standards work, which is the case in three forces
  • Regardless of structures and processes in place within each force the investigation of complaints against the police relies upon a significant level of involvement from non-departmental staff, either through participation in preliminary enquiries or, in some forces, routinely carrying out full enquiries
  • During 2002/03, 2823 complaints were lodged with Scottish forces. The level of Deputy Chief Constable (DCC) involvement in cases will vary from force to force and will also depend on the nature of the case
  • The cost of external force enquiries has been calculated on the basis of 16 such enquiries conducted between April 2001 and July 2002. This has been estimated to have involved 20 officers of varying ranks on a full time basis for over a year
  • The costs are identified as estimates of annual expenditure.

3.18 The figures quoted do not include extra costs such as employer contributions, allowances, etc. This can be as much as 22% of salary for support staff and 49% for a police officer. They do not take account of the running of 60 misconduct hearings held in the last financial year nor a number of other associated costs, for example, office systems support, legal advice or other expert opinion. Nor is any account taken of the 92 complaints referred to HMIC in the same period. Clearly, the significant involvement of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service in police complaints that infer criminality is a matter which is outwith the scope of HMIC's work.

From Blame Culture to Learning Culture

3.19 From the figures shown, the current process can be seen as extremely costly in terms of time and other resources. It has other obvious drawbacks in that, in many instances, neither complainers nor police staff receive satisfaction from the process and line management can be excluded from involvement in resolving complaints and developing staff.

3.20 To quote one Deputy Chief Constable 7, " the problem up to now has been that the received wisdom surrounding the way in which complaints are handled in Scotland has tended to be inflexible, leading to a 'one size fits all' approach and win/lose, lose/win, or lose/lose outcomes.... The challenge we have to overcome, it seems to me, is to stop associating the word 'Complaint' with the word 'Discipline' as easily as we associate the words 'salt and vinegar', because by doing so in the past we have unwittingly created negative connotations around the word 'complaint' and tended to limit our options for dealing with complaints to issues of misconduct".

3.21 HMIC recognises the need for a robust system to deal effectively with wrongdoing by police officers and staff. However, it believes the time is right to review the entire complaints process and to break the link between complaints and misconduct which leads to an automatic reaction that seeks to identify individual culpability. In its place should be a process that encourages officers to take responsibility for their own actions and places an emphasis on continuous individual and organisational improvement based on learning outcomes. This concept is developed in the next chapter.