Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Failure at the IPCC

Why has the Independent Police Complaints Commission failed?

Accusations of mediocrity, incompetence and poor-quality decision-making within the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) have been levelled by the Police Action Lawyers Group, which resigned on Monday from an advisory group set up to support the IPCC's work. This decision by the network of over 100 specialist lawyers, one that campaigners working on police misconduct and custody death issues have known for some time was inevitable, represents a damning verdict on the Commission's five years as the police complaints body for England and Wales. The IPCC was established to replace the long discredited Police Complaints Authority and its roots lie in the recommendations of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry report of 1999. It was supposed to be a fresh start. So how have things managed to go so wrong?

Back in 2003, I met Nick Hardwick, then newly appointed as chair of the IPCC, as part of a delegation of family members whose loved ones had died in police custody. Looking back on the notes of that meeting, the promises that were made about the new role of the Commission seem impressive. One firm commitment - that the IPCC would intervene immediately when a death involving the police occurred - still sticks out because of subsequent events in Stockwell in 2005. But the overwhelming feeling of the sceptical families who attended was that, no matter how good a pitch Hardwick was able to make, the IPCC had to prove in practice that it was different. It had to demonstrate that it was genuinely independent, that it would not bow to pressure from powerful interests within government and the police, and most importantly that its decisions would be fair and robust.

Sadly, the litany of complaints from the lawyers who put their credibility on the line to act in an advisory role for the the IPCC are mirrored by those raised by campaigners and complainants over the intervening period. What is perhaps most surprising is that it has taken the Police Action Lawyers Group so long to call it a day. For from the start, the IPCC has been more concerned with trying to create the impression of even-handedness than of facing up to its biggest test - providing consistent, authoritative and transparent judgements.

The result has been utter confusion and condemnation from all sides. Some might argue that criticism from groups as fundamentally different as the Metropolitan Police Federation (MPF) and the Jean Charles de Menezes Family Campaign somehow proves that the IPCC is demonstrating its independence, but what it really shows is how the feebleness of its decisions leave them open to interpretation and ridicule. In the period of often long delay that has characterised the way the IPCC reaches a judgement on a controversial complaint, Hardwick and his organisation have been repeatedly guilty of stoking up expectations to lawyers and families, whilst sending a completely different message to the uniformed readership of 'Police Review'. In many ways, the MPF's description of the IPCC as a 'pressure group' is correct, albeit for the wrong reasons: the only 'cause' that the Commission fights most vigorously for is its own public image.

And its advisory group has evidently been a part of this process. I have spoken to people who have attended its meetings and they have described them as dull, directionless and having little practical value. The meetings do, however, provide the IPCC with a useful way of claiming its inclusiveness and openness, even if the the advisory group makes no real difference to the way complaints are investigated.

There is a reason why organisations end up resorting to more and more spin and invariably it is to try and hide their shortcomings. That's certainly true of the IPCC. Partly this is the fault of the Police Reform Act 2002, which created the Commission not as a completely independent body but one sponsored by the Home Office and supposedly at 'arm's length' from it. In an area as potentially controversial as complaints against police officers, the temptation for ministers to loosely interpret the length of the government's arm requires strong leadership and a willingness to resist the greatest threat to the IPCC's independence. This is not the Police Federation and certainly not the campaigners, but a government so terrified of being seen as 'soft on crime' that it competes with the Conservatives to unravel other reforms introduced following the Lawrence Inquiry. Unfortunately, what the IPCC has lacked since its inception has been any indication of a backbone, and the fault for this lies squarely with Hardwick and his fellow Commissioners.

There are many examples of this lack of nerve: the failure, for example, of the IPCC to insist that the Home Office overrule Humberside Police Authority and demand interviews with the five officers who refused to cooperate with investigation into the death of Christopher Alder. When an unnamed informant provided false information to the police that led to the Forest Gate raids in June 2006, the IPCC chose not to investigate the steps the police took to assess the quality of the intelligence that they received. This presumably, would have opened a can of worms about the quality of 'anti-terrorism' policing in Britain.

And most notoriously, the IPCC failed to robustly defend its statutory duty to investigate the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, gunned down at Stockwell police station in July 2005, allowing the Metropolitan Police to prevent its investigation for five days after the shooting. Even in this most serious and damaging challenge to the IPCC's credibility, there was never any prospect that Hardwick might face down the government by threatening to resign or by publicly criticising the Home Office for preventing hs organisation from doing its job.

That, after all, would involve a demonstration of independence that is clearly beyond the comprehension of the supposedly 'Independent' Police Complaints Commission.

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