Only one in 400 police complaints lead to punishment

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The debate over police disciplinary procedures looks set to heighten, with the revelation that less than one per cent of complaints against police ever translate into punishment. Our reporter investigates whether Britain's police are unimpeachable - or simply above the law.

Only one police officer received disciplinary action for every 382 police officers against whom complaints were made last year, Home Office figures have revealed.

Between 1996 and 1997, almost 10,000 complaints involving the Metropolitan Police, and more than 36,000 involving officers across England and Wales, were made and completed. Of those figures, 20 Metropolitan police officers and 102 across England and Wales received disciplinary action.

The figures were revealed in a written answer from Home Office Minister Alun Michael to Kevin McNamara, Labour MP for Hull North. Mr McNamara, who said he was "shocked" by the figures, is to write to the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, to draw his attention to the ratio of completed complaints to disciplinary action against officers.

"I would like to think that it shows what a fine, upstanding body of men and women they are, but I think it says something more about the way complaints against police are investigated," Mr McNamara said.

The figures look set to fuel increasing criticism, even from within the forces themselves, that police disciplinary procedures are inadequate.

In a speech last month, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Condon reiterated this point to MPs and repeated his allegation that up to 250 officers at Scotland Yard were corrupt.

The Commissioner also noted the large number of officers under investigation who go sick. Many internal inquiries are halted without proof of wrongdoing when the accused officers take retirement on health grounds. In 1995-6, more than 70 per cent of officers facing investigation retired on medical grounds.

A Police Complaints Authority spokesman said the disparity between the complaints made and officers disciplined could be explained by a number of factors. "There is often a disparity between those complaints made and those we are able to investigate fully. The Home Office would record all the complaints, including minor complaints which would not be investigated formally," he said.

He added: "Often complaints fall down because they are withdrawn. An awful lot of people drop out; often the complaint is made when someone is very angry. They'll then think better of it and change their mind."

In many other cases, he said, the complainant would not cooperate with an investigation, or refuse to respond to letters.

But there are other reasons why a complaint may not result in punishment for the officer concerned. Disciplinary proceedings against police officers have to attain a level of proof far higher than is the case in other occupations. To save embarrassment, many are simply offered early retirement.

Similarly, police forces have the power to prevent any investigation into their activities simply by refusing to record the complaint. Where a complaint is referred to the PCA, it is examined by another police force.

Labour MP Chris Mullin, chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Committee, which is investigating police disciplinary and complaints procedures, said: "It's widely recognised that the existing complaints and discipline procedures are not satisfactory and that there are many obstacles in the way of dealing effectively with the small minority of officers who are either corrupt or who misbehave.

"Our report is likely to suggest some robust ways of overcoming these difficulties."

Police complaints and discipline 1996-97

Metropolitan England

Police and Wales

Total complaints completed 9,919 36,731

Officers charged with disciplinary

offence as a result of a complaint 36 141

Officers receiving disciplinary action

as a result of a complaint 20 102