Call for tough action against wrongdoers in police forces

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The Independent Online
MPs yesterday called for wide-ranging reforms in the way police officers are disciplined, particularly the way officers delay procedures indefinitely by going sick. But, says Michael Streeter, Legal Affairs Correspondent, the committee ducked the chance to set up an independent investigation system.

Aspects of the police disciplinary system have become "virtually paralysed", said Chris Mullin, chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee.

Launching his committee's report, the Labour MP said there was an urgent need to restore public confidence in the way complaints against officers are handled. "There is no doubt a small minority of officers ... have effectively subverted the system by exploiting every conceivable loophole," he said. "If these people complain now, they only have themselves to blame."

Mr Mullin said he believed that the "political will exists" at the Home Office to implement their proposals, while committee colleagues said they expected action by the summer.

The report was welcomed by senior officers who have complained they are often powerless to act against corrupt officers. In his evidence to the committee last month, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Condon estimated that a hard core of between 100 and 250 officers in his force were "corrupt, dishonest and unethical".

The MPs' key proposals include reducing the right of silence for officers in proceedings, removing their automatic right to escape disciplinary action if they are acquitted in criminal proceedings, and, controversially, to reduce the standard of proof required for dismissal to the "balance of probability" used in civil courts.

Mr Mullin said that as far as possible, disciplinary action against a police officer should be the same as against any employee and should be conducted with greater openness.

To prevent endless delays caused by officers going sick, the MPs recommend that action should continue despite the illness of an officer, where this does not stop him or her answering the charge.

Chief constables would also have a new "fast-track" power, where there is overwhelming evidence of misconduct, to dismiss officers immediately - though with a right of appeal.

But to the dismay of some critics, the MPs have rejected "for the time being" calling for an independent body to investigate allegations, citing impracticality and cost. Challenged on this, Mr Mullin said they had not ruled it out for the future.

An area of dissent among the MPs is the suggestion that a lesser, civil court standard of proof be accepted even where an officer faces dismissal. The three Tory members, and the Police Federation, believe the criminal trial standard of "beyond reasonable doubt" should be kept.

David Blakey, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, said: "The overwhelming majority of police officers have nothing to fear from these proposals and will be pleased that, if they are implemented, the tiny minority of wrongdoers will be able to be dealt with more effectively."

The Home Office welcomed what it described as a "very thorough and interesting" report . "Ministers are studying it carefully and we hope to respond with proposals shortly."