Is the Police Misconduct System Unfair?

Photo of John Hagan, a solicitor who specialises in civil actions against the police and personal injury law.

By John Hagan, solicitor

After last week’s verdict from the Hillsborough inquests, revelations as to the conduct of South Yorkshire Police have only reinforced my view about the partial and biased nature of the police complaints and misconduct system.

I am concerned that too many people have the same mistaken impression as that which was expressed by BBC radio show host Jonathan Vernon Smith in my recent radio interview, which I discussed in my previous blog.

When I expressed the view that in my experience it is very rare for a police force not to “rally behind” officers accused by outsiders of wrongdoing (what we might call “institutional tribalism”) and that police forces do not as a matter of course “hang officers out to dry” Mr Vernon Smith replied –

“The police are frightened of people like you, lawyers like you. The police are frightened of losing their jobs…A select group of lawyers have now frightened the police into a position where they are prepared to take action against someone who many of us consider to be a hero, who should have been given a medal.”

He was here specifically referring to the case of Andrew Blades, a special constable with the Lancashire Constabulary who was sacked after admitting dangerous driving, when he pulled his car into the path of a “dirt bike rider” whom the police were attempting to apprehend.

When I challenged him to produce evidence in support of what I considered to be a wildly inaccurate statement, “JVS” (as he is known to his fans) was unable to do so. In response I asserted my view that police apologies and disciplinary action against their officers is rare in response to meritorious claims of wrongdoing against them, and the sacking of officers practically unheard of, as a direct response to outside legal action.

This is surely borne out by the Hillsborough case in which we have witnessed a police force spend a quarter of a century and tens of millions of pounds seeking to exonerate its officers and shield itself from criticism. The people who were ‘hung out to dry’ by the Force were surely not its own officers but rather the men, women and children who had died in the disaster, and their fellow supporters who were grossly slandered by the concerted lies of the police.

This does not suggest to me that police forces are ‘frightened’ by legal claims, but instead meet them head on, frequently failing to take a sensible and conciliatory approach to meritorious claims and siding with ‘their own’ against ‘the outsiders’.

Police Misconduct Managed by Senior Officers

The current police misconduct system certainly does not seem to be overly harsh to officers – quite the opposite – and I do not believe for one moment that it is costing “heroes” their jobs. Only last week the Chief Constable of West Midlands Police complained that changes to the misconduct hearings process (the introduction of independent legal chairs) would mean he would not be able to sack enough officers.

This strongly suggests that the only fear police officers should have of misconduct proceedings is of internal enemies/ agendas against them, not external ones (as characterised by JVS).

If Andrew Blades was “hung out to dry” this was a decision made by his superiors, not actions against the police lawyers.

In my last blog, I referred to the case of PC Valentine, praised for his good service to the community, who was spared the sack after admitting gross misconduct in wilfully accessing the police database to read confidential information about people in his private life. I am aware of a similar case which my firm handled in which an officer who illegally used the database to search for information on people whom he believed to be associating with his ex- partner, but on that occasion the officer’s Force – the Metropolitan Police – induced him to accept a caution on the basis this would be “looked upon favourably” by the disciplinary board investigating his misconduct, and then pressured him to resign – which he duly did – on the basis that the caution now meant it was “inevitable” he would lose his job.

During the course of this process, the Metropolitan Police also illegally took the officer’s DNA and fingerprints, despite the fact that the caution he accepted was for a “non- recordable” criminal offence with a maximum penalty of a fine. This action of photographing, taking a DNA sample and fingerprinting the officer was one he found deeply humiliating and distressing and increased the pressure on him to resign.

All of this was an internal process within the Metropolitan police and no claim was brought by any other individual involved in this matter.

I have known serving police officers describe misconduct panels as “kangaroo courts”. If they are, it is senior police officers who are pulling their strings, not lawyers.