Edward Crew, head of West Midlands Police, said that some of his staff would have been automatically dismissed for dishonesty if they worked for a supermarket, but he was forced to keep them on because of protective practices.
"There are people working in this force that wouldn't be employed by Sainsbury's," he told The Independent. His concerns are shared by other chiefs throughout the country and the police complaints watchdog, who are urging the Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, to change the law.
Mr Crew, and fellow chief constables in England and Wales, have asked Mr Straw to reduce the standard of proof to allow forces to sack police officers considered corrupt or grossly incompetent. At present, it is extremely difficult to remove anyone - last year only 98 were sacked. To sack a police officer, evidence that proves "beyond reasonable doubt" that they are guilty is needed - a far higher standard than in civil cases or industrial tribunals. Instant dismissals are also prevented except in the most exceptional cases.
Mr Crew said: "In Sainsbury's, if they have a man whose hand is caught in the till they will release [sack] them. I couldn't do this, I have to prosecute and prove it beyond reasonable doubt. There are a very small number of officers in this force, and in the police service nationally, who I suspect of having been involved in serious breaches in the criminal law, where it's not possible to obtain evidence to prove beyond reasonable doubt they were involved in that behaviour."
He continued: "I have officers in this force who should not be serving police officers. If we were assessing their standards of behaviour to the standard required of other employers, these people would not be working."
He added: "I have officers who have been to court and have been found not guilty of criminal offences by a jury and they continue to serve in this force because I cannot, in the current arrangement, [use] evidence that was given to the court."
Earlier this week, the West Midlands Police became the second force to set up a confidential internal telephone hotline for staff to pass on information about suspected corrupt officers. The call for reform of the system by Mr Crew, and the Association of Chief Police Officers has the support of the independent Police Complaints Authority (PCA). The Home Secretary has agreed to re-examine the issue.
The Police Federation, which represents all ranks below superintendent - the vast bulk of the 127,000 officers in England and Wales - is furious at the action by chief constables and have accused them of reneging on early promises.
Sir Paul Condon, commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, has already criticised what he believes is a growing trend among police officers accused of serious corruption and malpractice of avoiding disciplinary hearings by taking sick leave and retiring on grounds of ill health with index- linked benefits.
Mr Crew is also critical of the "double jeopardy" system, whereby evidence used against a police officer in a criminal trial cannot be re-used at a disciplinary hearing. The Crown Prosecution Service has privately admitted that it sometimes fails to bring charges against a police officer because it fears a jury will acquit him or her and thereby deny an opportunity for the evidence to be heard at a disciplinary hearing.
Mr Crew also believes that the high level of proof prevents him from sacking some officers who he believes have sexually harassed female colleagues.
Peter Moorhouse, chairman of the PCA, yesterday agreed that there are some corrupt officers who are being protected by the system, but said they were a "small minority". A PCA spokesman said: "We sympathise with Mr Crew and would like to see changes to the system."
The Police Federation argues that the police need extra protection against malicious complaints. Ian Westwood, vice chairman of the federation, said: "If chief constables believe officers are corrupt they should be dealt with at court and sentenced to imprisonment. We are concerned that people will be got rid of without proper evidence just because someone suspects they are corrupt."
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