Anger grows at soaring cost of police assaults

Over the last 10 years Scotland Yard has paid out an estimated pounds 20m of taxpayers' money in damages and legal costs to answer allegations of brutality and gross misconduct by officers - renewing allegations that police chiefs are failing to deal with a growing problem.

More than pounds 8m was in compensation to men and women who alleged they were the victims of police misconduct. The rest paid police costs and plaintiffs' legal bills. Labour MPs are to table a series of questions in the Commons on the issue.

Calls for a public inquiry followed immediately upon Thursday's payout of nearly pounds 300,000 to two men who told London County Court juries how in separate incidents in Streatham, south London, they were the victims of police actions. In the first, record damages of pounds 220,000 were awarded to Kenneth Hsu, 32, who was kicked, punched and racially abused by officers who had wrongly arrested him. pounds 200,000 of that was "exemplary" damages imposed by the jury both to punish and to show Sir Paul Condon, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, that such misconduct would not be tolerated.

MPs and lawyers are concerned that awards and settlements are now so frequent that urgent action is needed. Their greatest anxiety is that officers are rarely the subject of criminal charges or disciplinary action. In 1994, the latest year for which full figures are available, the police won outright only 24 of 304 cases against them, but no officers were prosecuted and only four disciplined - one cautioned, another fined and two "given words of advice".

In three serious cases this year, involving grave allegations against named officers, including those accused by Mr Hsu, no officers have been disciplined.

Their second concern is that the Police Complaints Authority does not providing a suitable remedy. For example, it had re jected Mr Hsu's complaints.

The police, and the PCA,argue that the burden of proof depends on the type of case: a civil action is decided on the lesser "balance of probabilities"; a criminal and disciplinary case must be decided "beyond reasonable doubt".

Further, Sir Paul has made it clear that he blames the explosion of civil actions on specialist lawyers who chose to sue rather than make a formal complaint, because they see the force as an easy target. Most civil actions for damages are settled outside court, without any admission of liability by the police.

But yesterday Sadiq Khan, Mr Hsu's solicitor said: "It is because the Police Complaints Authority is so impotent that more people are resorting to remedies offered under civil law to seek out some sort of justice."

Sir Paul is on the record as saying he was determined to fight more actions in court. But Thursday's two awards of punitive damages may deter him. Meanwhile, he will face mounting pressure to act - not least from two civil actions expected later this year. They follow the verdicts of "unlawful killing" by two inquest juries against officers involved in the death of two men they were seeking to arrest, Shiji Lapite and Richard O'Brien.

Damages paid by the Metropolitan force

1986 pounds 393,000

1987 pounds 184,000

1988 pounds 388,000

1989 pounds 523,000

1990 pounds 836,000

1991 pounds 471,000

1992 pounds 755,000

1993 pounds 1,589,000

1994 pounds 1,343,000

1995 pounds 1,560,000

Total pounds 8,042,000

Legal costs will more than double the bill to the taxpayer.