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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

Part III: More Information and Statistics
Chapter 6 More Information and Statistics

Background to Data

6.1 The following section provides some statistical data and commentary on complaints recorded by the Scottish Police Service. The data are taken from statistical returns which forces complete and submit to HMIC annually 17. For counting purposes, a complaint is defined as:

"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 reasonably be 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."

6.2 Any police officer who is off duty should not be counted, unless the officer has placed him/herself back on duty in order to deal with an incident and/or has made his/her identity as a police officer known to those present.

6.3 From 2001-02, this definition was extended to include all complaints categorised as minor and trivial, while still excluding quality of service cases. From the same time, complaints against all members of a force (i.e. support staff and special constables as well as police officers) were counted.

Complaint Cases Received and Disposed Of

6.4 A complaint "case" is a single investigation undertaken by an investigating officer into one or a group of incidents, following a complaint by one or more persons. Thus, where a person complains of an assault by an officer during arrest and that he was later subjected to threats at the police station, this would be investigated as one complaint case comprising two complaint allegations. Had a second person complained about the assault, this would still be investigated as one case, but there would then be two complainers. The year in which a complaint case is counted is the year in which it was first officially recorded as such, not the date of the incident complained of.

Figure 3: Number of complaint cases received by Scottish police forces in the last five years


6.5 Figure 3 shows fairly steady levels of recorded complaints against forces, either side of the period when the definition changed. After that time, the number of cases recorded across Scotland more or less doubled. This can mainly be attributed to the inclusion of minor and trivial complaints. Support staff and special constables account for roughly 30% of all staff, but for only around 4% of all recorded cases. Thus, the rise in rates per 100 members of staff is less pronounced, as can be seen in Figure 4. The variance in rates is referred to at paragraphs 1.11 and 1.12 of the report.

Figure 4: Complaint cases per 100 police officers (to 2000-01) and members of staff (from 2001-02)


6.6 Typically, forces are unable to dispose of all complaints in the same year that they receive them. The rise in actual numbers recorded has exacerbated this situation, with the number outstanding by the end of the fiscal year up by almost a quarter (24.4%) on the average of the previous four years. And yet, the proportion of complaints forces have disposed of within the year has risen - from 63.9% in 1998-99 to 73.6% in 2002-03.


6.7 Over the last five years, the average number of allegations per case, for all Scotland, has remained at around 1.6. As a result, the 58% increase in cases disposed of is more or less matched by a 61% rise in completed allegations.

Figure 5: Number of complaint allegations disposed of by Scottish forces in last five years


6.8 For recording purposes, complaint allegations traditionally fall into one of eleven categories. Disposals of each, for the year 2002-03, are shown in Figure 6 below. Where a complaint leads to conduct proceedings, it is considered disposed of when the conduct hearing terminates and the punishment is communicated to the officer concerned. Otherwise, disposals occur when the appropriate officer has made the final decision not to take proceedings.

Figure 6: Share of disposals by allegation type, 2002-03

pie chart

6.9 Accounting for just fewer than one in four disposals in the year 2002-03, assaults remain the most common category of allegation. Having said that, this share has been declining over the years, having stood at 40% in 1998-99. Where gradual, long term increases are evident is for incivility, neglect of duty and irregularity in procedure.

6.10 An allegation is substantiated where it has led either directly to a finding of guilt in criminal or conduct proceedings, or to the giving of corrective advice directly related to the original complaint. For the last five years at least, the proportion of allegations that go on to be substantiated has not exceeded 10 per cent. In 2002-03, this figure was 7.7 per cent.

6.11 The proportion of allegations found to be substantiated, differs over time and by complaint type. Nevertheless, neglect of duty clearly and consistently shows the highest share of these, assault, the lowest. In more detail, over the last five years, allegations of neglect of duty have been substantiated in between 23% to 34% of instances; at the other end of the spectrum, shares of substantiated assault allegations have varied from between 0.4% to 1.2%.

Figure 7: Proportion of all allegations found to be substantiated, per complaint type, 2002-03


6.12 With the definition now extended to take in minor and trivial complaints, not surprisingly, the proportion of allegations resolved without resorting to more serious formal complaint procedures, has risen. Whereas shares of these too tended to remain below ten per cent, the last two years have seen informal resolutions now accounting for as many as one in four disposals. As a direct result of this, the proportion of allegations found to be unsubstantiated has declined, by a similar margin. Conversely, little has changed in terms of allegations that are subsequently withdrawn by complainers - at 7.4% in 2002-03, this remains similar to levels recorded in previous years.

Figure 8: Nature of allegation disposals, 1998-99 to 2002-03


6.13 The final figure in this section shows the pattern of disposals across forces. Again, while these tend on the whole to vary over time, there are some consistencies. For example, force G has had the lowest proportion of substantiated and amongst the highest share of unsubstantiated allegations for at least the five years examined here. Prior to the recent changes in definition, forces D and E reported some of the highest shares of disposals by informal resolution. While force C has typically recorded the lowest share of withdrawn complaints over the last five years.

Figure 9: Percentage shares of disposal types by force, 2002-03


Referrals to the Procurator Fiscal

6.14 Any complaint alleging criminal conduct must be referred for consideration to the procurator fiscal. In 2002-03, a total of 939 such cases were identified from the overall total of 2,704 disposed of. Here again, the impact of including minor and trivial complaints is apparent, with 939 representing only a 5% rise in number on the previous four year average, against a 58% increase in the number of all cases disposed of in the same year. Thus, cases alleging criminal conduct now account for around one, as opposed to nearer two, in every three disposals.

6.15 Of these 939 referrals, proceedings took place in only 13 instances. Indeed, the proportion of referrals subsequently taken to proceedings is typically low, as shown in Figure 8 below. The same figure also shows a similarly overall downward trend in cases leading to proceedings as a percentage of all disposed cases.

Figure 10: Cases leading to criminal proceedings as (i) a percentage of all referrals and (ii) a percentage of all disposed cases


Professional Misconduct

6.16 Allegations of misconduct against a member of a force can arise from internal or external complaints. Appendix A of the Police (Conduct) (Scotland) Regulations 1996, itemises the categories of behaviour or conduct that constitute misconduct. These range from conduct likely to bring discredit on the police force or service, through neglect of duty, to having been found guilty by a criminal court of a criminal offence. In 2002-03, a total of 284 conduct cases were disposed of, showing a fall in number of nearly 11% on the previous four year average.

6.17 Conduct cases can be disposed of in a number of ways, including via warnings, counselling or conduct hearings. As has been the case recently, the most frequent disposal option for cases in this category is through the administering of warnings. For the last three years, these have accounted for approximately one in every three such disposals whereas previously they have represented less than one in four. Conversely, where counselling was at one point the most frequently adopted method, it now accounts for around a quarter of all conduct disposals.

6.18 More serious allegations may be disposed of by conduct hearing. These have also seen a decline, though to a smaller degree, while other disposal categories have experienced only fairly minor fluctuation. Figure 9 below, shows shares of disposal method as applied in 2002-03.

Figure 11: Percentage share of disposals for conduct cases, 2002-03

pie chart

6.19 As the figure above shows, in 2002-03 just over one in every five conduct cases, or 60 in number, was disposed by a conduct hearing. Of these, just eight (13.3%) arose directly out of an external complaint only. Forty-six (76.7%) were internal conduct cases, while the remaining six (10%) were the result of other circumstances. In previous years too, the majority of cases have been internal conduct cases but the proportion arising from an external complaint continues a downward trend since a recent peak in 1999-00 of 43%.

6.20 Hearings where guilt is neither proven nor admitted are relatively uncommon. In 2002-03, just two, or 3.3%, fell into this category. Over the previous five years, the highest proportion recorded in this vein was 5.6% in 1999-00. Where guilt is proven or admitted, various, and if required, multiple, disposal options are available. These range from caution to dismissal. The most common response continues to be either to fine or to reprimand the member of staff involved. That said, the latest year has seen a rise in the number and percentage share of the two more severe penalties, namely being required to resign and dismissal. Figure 10 shows trends over the last five years.

Figure 12: Percentage share of disposals at conduct hearings, where guilt proven or admitted


Dissatisfied Complainers

6.21 Finally, if a member of the public is dissatisfied with the way in which the force has handled a complaint, then he or she may refer the matter to HMIC which will then examine the force's handling of the complaint.

6.22 This final figure shows complaints received by HMIC from dissatisfied complainers, as a proportion of complaints disposed of by forces in the same year. It is recognised that these time periods may not actually concur, i.e. HMIC may receive a complaint in the year following that in which the force received it originally, and so the following is used only as an indicator of trends. By this definition, on average fewer than 5% of all complaints disposed of by Scottish forces, result in a dissatisfied complainer contacting HMIC.

Figure 13: HMIC complaints as a percentage of force complaints