Nick Hardwick: 'As with corruption in the past, the shame of racism is not admitting it exists'

The Monday Interview: Chairman, Independent Police Complaints Commission
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The Independent Online

The first thing that strikes you on entering the plush new headquarters of the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) are the fiery red carpets and the luminous lime-coloured squashy chairs.

The central London offices look more like a swish advertising agency than the home of a government-funded police investigation body.

"We don't want people to think this is another police station, or government office. It is something new - we are providing a fresh start," said Nick Hardwick, the commission's recently appointed chairman.

Until now the biggest criticism of the existing Police Complaints Authority, which the commission replaces in April, is that when a member of the public makes an allegation of wrongdoing against a police officer, it is a fellow officer who carries out the inquiry. How can the public have confidence in a system where police are policing themselves?

Step forward the all-new commission. The biggest difference from the PCA is that from April the most serious cases, those involving deaths in custody, allegations of serious racism or corruption, and shootings, will be carried out by a team of civilian investigators. Although some of the inquiry team will be former detectives, most will come from jobs in customs and excise, immigration, social security and the private sector. It is this element of independence that the commission and the Home Office are hoping will improve public confidence in the system.

To reinforce this break with the past, Mr Hardwick and his two deputies were - until recently - viewed as strong anti-establishment figures. Mr Hardwick, 46, has spent the past eight years campaigning for refugee rights as the chief executive of the Refugee Council, and previously worked with homeless people and former offenders.

His deputies are John Wadham, the former director of Liberty, the human rights organisation, and Claire Gilham, who has a legal background.

But Mr Hardwick is under no illusions about the struggle his organisation faces.

"I think it's easy enough now to come out with a lot of warm words," he said. "But people will judge us on what we do on the ground. If, after two years, we have grudging respect, that will do me fine."

"No one is saying we can have a perfect outcome with 100 per cent of complainantsand the police thinking justice has been done. If someone's child has died in custody there is nothing you can say to put it right.

"There will be people who will abuse the system and there will be police officers who have done nothing wrong but who feel the system is unfair.

"But that's not to say we can't satisfy more people and operate a more open system."

With an initial annual budget of £24m the commission is filling vacancies for 72 investigators among its 230 staff. Incredibly 13,000 people applied for the jobs.

Investigators will have considerable powers to issue instructions about what should happen at a crime scene and to seize evidence. Access will be guaranteed.

As well as deaths in custody, the commission will concentrate on complaints that cause the greatest unease.

Mr Hardwick said he was most concerned about police racism. He believes the issue of race has overtaken corruption as the most serious problem. As evidence he cited the BBC documentary, The Secret Policeman, in which recruits were filmed praising Hitler, donning a Ku Klux Klan-style hood, and congratulating the murderers of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence.

"There are big questions about why people like that thought the police service was going to be a comfortable place to work. What we would like to see is that complaints on these matters are dealt with properly.

"I think there are parallels in how the police have dealt with corruption. If you go back a long time there was almost a certain acceptance of a low level of corruption. Then it led to ... a strong drive against major corruption. You now see it with the use of integrity testing. As with corruption in the past, the shame of racism is not admitting it exists, it's refusing to acknowledge it and deal with it."

Mr Hardwick is also concerned at the number of people who are injured or killed when police are chasing suspects, rushing to a crime scene, or responding to a 999 call. And, he says, another worry is the number of complaints, particularly from lawyers, about police accused of not properly investigating an alleged crime. Complaints will be investigated on three levels. The top-priority cases, estimated at about 30 in the first year, will be investigated solely by members of the IPCC.

The second level are the very serious cases, estimated at about 100 in the first year but more in subsequent years, which will be investigated by a team of IPCC staff and serving police officers.

The third level will be investigated by the police force complaints department and is expected to cover a total of about 650 cases a year. All the inquiries will be overseen by a commissioner.

Most complaints will continue to be looked at by the police force complaints department but the public can appeal to the IPCC if they are unhappy with the outcome.

There are more than 18,000 complaints against the police each year. The biggest single category is minor assault (4,600), followed by failure in duty (2,900), incivility (1,830), oppressive conduct or harassment (1,300) and unlawful arrest or detention (1,150).

Mr Hardwick is keen for the police to get more involved in informal conflict resolutions. "The police are not good at explaining what they are doing and saying sorry," he said. "Often what people want is an explanation or an apology. You could have an informal process and people will apologise and say this is what we are doing to put it right."

As well as resolving more disputes amicably, Mr Hardwick would like to create a more transparent system. "We want to give final reports to the families. The more light that can be shed on this the better for everybody," he said.

He also wants to speed up the process, and cited the case of James Ashley, who was shot dead, unarmed, during a bungled police raid in Hastings, East Sussex. In November, Mr Ashley's family received an apology from Ken Jones, the chief constable of Sussex - nearly six years later.

"Even less serious matters, which common sense says should be wrapped up in a few days go on for several months," he said.

Mr Hardwick says the police have supported the reforms, which they believe will reduce the number of conflicts and provide greater credibility to the system.

Despite the appointment of civilian investigators the IPCC still expects a third to a quarter of its key managers to be former police officers. This includes the new director of investigations, Roy Clark, a former deputy assistant commissioner at the Metropolitan Police who was responsible for setting up Scotland Yard's professional standards unit. Mr Hardwick is unapologetic about the police involvement. He said the combination would provide "professionalism and independence".

"People want [the IPCC] to be independent but they want it to be competent as well. It's important that the police are involved and that they learn where they have gone wrong and where they have got it right."

Back at the IPCC headquarters at 90 High Holborn, Mr Hardwick is looking forward to the battle ahead. "When something goes wrong and the media and politicians are calling for a head on a plate it will be for us to take an independent position and provide a safguard."

And as for those red carpets? "It doesn't cost any more not to buy a boring carpet," he says.

CV: Nick Hardwick

BORN: 19 July 1957, in London.

FAMILY: Lives in Kilburn with wife, Sue, and son, Jack, 10.

EDUCATION: BA in English Literature from Hull University, 1979. Honorary doctorate in social sciences from the University of Wolverhampton.

1980-1986: National Association for the Care of Resettlement of Offenders.

1986-1995: Chief executive of Centrepoint.

1986: Deputy director of the Society of Voluntary Associates, which recruited volunteers to work with the probation service.

1994-1999: Member of the Social Security Advisory Committee and the Prince's Trust ethnic minorities advisory group.

1995-2003: Chief executive of the Refugee Council

2002: Appointed the first chairman of the Independent Police Complaints Commission.