Leading Article: An excessively retiring force

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IT HAS happened again. Police officers under investigation have been allowed to take early retirement on medical grounds. As a result they cannot be disciplined if the Crown Prosecution Service, which is studying an inquiry into the case, decides against criminal charges; and they will probably receive higher pensions.

As we reported on Saturday, the case concerns four suspended South Yorkshire Police officers under investigation over serious allegations of corruption and theft. These involved remand prisoners housed in a Doncaster police station cell block, from whom the police were alleged to have accepted payments in return for favours. The same force was criticised for allowing two senior officers facing a disciplinary tribunal over the Hillsborough tragedy to retire early on medical grounds. It has happened in several other forces, too: for example, several former officers of the disbanded West Midlands serious crime squad escaped disciplinary action because they had retired for health reasons.

The usual explanation, provided by the officers' own doctor and supported by a police doctor, is that they were suffering from stress. No doubt it is stressful to face accusations of corruption or breaches of discipline, especially if there are grounds for fearing that these will be substantiated after lengthy investigations. The public may be tempted to interpret stress as the police themselves interpret a prisoner's use of the right to silence: as a sign of guilt. It does not look like a good reason for allowing officers to leave without a stain on their character and with an extra seven-sixtieths of their final salary as compensation, even if they are near to retirement age. More than half of all those retiring are believed to do so for medical reasons. If so, the health of police officers must be worse than that of any other workers in the land. The wafer-thin justification is that they are supposed to be fit for all duties. But, of course, many are (or could be) doing something physically undemanding.

The House of Commons home affairs select committee has twice condemned police evasion of disciplinary action by retirement on medical grounds, suggesting that each case should be examined by a panel of independent experts. The least bad argument for it goes like this: it is not possible to sack officers for incompetence, and breaches of discipline have to be proved beyond reasonable doubt, a high standard of proof. Early retirement is therefore the only way of getting rid of the incompetent or unprovably corrupt. But this is to reward failure, or worse.

Some action is at last being taken. In December the Home Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, announced legislation to allow police officers to be sacked on grounds of 'incapability'. He also said that disciplinary procedures needed to be less formal, lengthy and legalistic. In effect, Mr Clarke recognised that there had been a failure of management: not only has there been a considerable amount of incompetence and corruption within the police, but some of those guilty also have been protected: a double failure. The Sheehy inquiry into police pay and responsibilities, due to report in May, is expected to recommend measures to prevent such abuses. Meanwhile, the police will continue to escape the normal sanctions of the workplace.