There are people in this force that wouldn't be employed by Sainsbury's

Jason Bennetto on the chief constable determined to stamp out police venality
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The Independent Online
Imagine that you are chief constable and one of your officers has been accused in court by a drug addict of supplying crack cocaine. The officer is acquitted due to lack of evidence, but other colleagues have told you privately that they believe he is bent. There is also some evidence of large cash payments into his bank account.

You believe the officer is corrupt and want to sack him, but your hands are tied. The disciplinary system means you are powerless to act.

This case is fictitious, but according to chief constables it is a dilemma that they are increasingly facing.

Attempts to change police chiefs' powers to discipline is causing a growing rift with rank and file officers. Critics say the system, is slow, toothless, and so weighted in favour of the police officers it is little wonder that so few are punished. Only about 98 officers are dismissed each year. Beat officers believe their chief constables are trying to remove an important safeguard which protects them from false allegations by criminals.

The row moved up a gear yesterday with the admission by one of the country's most senior chief constables that he knows of corrupt and grossly incompetent police officers but cannot dismiss them.

In addition, police chiefs believe that a growing number of officers accused of serious corruption and malpractice are avoiding disciplinary hearings by taking sick leave and retiring on grounds of ill health.

It was also disclosed that police officers are escaping criminal charges because the Crown Prosecution Service fears a failed court case will jeopardise future disciplinary action.

Edward Crew, Chief Constable of West Midlands police, the second largest force in the United Kingdom, reignited the debate yesterday after he told The Independent: "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 ... 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."

At the centre of the dispute is the police's disciplinary procedures and question of how officers accused of malpractice and corruption are dealt with. Rank and file members argue that extra safeguards are needed to protect officers from malicious complaints.

The Police Complaints Authority, the independent body set up to oversee investigations, since 1991 has called for changes to the system, which they believe can shield corrupt and second-rate officers. The Home Office is currently reviewing the whole procedure.

Chief constables are concerned about a number of issues. First, they believe the standard of proof needed to punish an officer at a disciplinary hearing is too high. At present they use the same standard as in a criminal case - they must prove something "beyond reasonable doubt" meaning they must be sure of guilt.

Police chiefs believe this can be very difficult to achieve and want it lowered to the same standard as other industrial tribunals and civil cases, namely a "balance of probability", meaning something is more likely than not or reasonable to believe.

They are also unhappy that if an officer is acquitted of a criminal charge, the evidence used to support the case cannot be reused at a disciplinary hearing - this is known as "double jeopardy".

At present there are two systems for dealing with allegations of corruption or malpractice. Cases can be dealt with by the police's own internal complaints bureau. Alternatively, if there is a complaint, the PCA can supervise the investigation bringing in an outside force if necessary. When the inquiry is completed the PCA will send recommendations to the CPS who decide whether to prosecute.

However, no action can be taken against officers who are just lazy or not up to the job. This is likely to change, though, with the planned in- troduction of performance indicators.

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