In its 10 years of existence, the police watchdog has failed miserably to live up teven to the most meagre expectations. Scandals in the police – the Met above all – have continued unabated, from the worrying number of unexplained deaths in police custody to highly questionable shootings of Azelle Rodney and Mark Duggan, the “plebgate” affair and the attempt to “smear” the family of Stephen Lawrence. Too often, little seems to be done to hold the miscreants behind these acts to account because the body charged with this task, the Independent Police Complaints Commission, is underfunded, toothless and even unwilling to act.
The IPCC has at least realised the extent of its failings, and the impact this has on public trust in law enforcement, and has released a report on reforms to the way complaints are addressed. One important change is to the so-called post-incident management process, or PIM. What has happened in the past, following a fatal incident, is that the officers involved all get together and align stories. Formerly, they did not even have to appear in person before the IPCC as witnesses – they could submit written answers at leisure. The proposed reform in this field would include an obligation for each officer to appear in person as a witness, alone, and immediately after an incident is reported. Investigations are to be shortened and, crucially, made more independent. The report suggests that the IPCC employ its own investigators, rather than relying on police officers to investigate their own colleagues.
More independence, less deference to “police culture” and a generally more robust approach. It all sounds welcome, but a caveat is essential. The report sounds tentative – more wish-list than detailed programme. Indicatively, it says that if the IPCC still feels that investigations are being hindered, it will “consider seeking further legislative changes” – but what changes and what laws it has in mind are unclear. This is a pivotal moment for the IPCC. It has pinpointed egregious problems in the complaints procedure and suggested ways forward. Good intentions are a start. The proof will be in the action.