The police watchdog has warned of a ‘postcode lottery’ in the way forces around the country deal with complaints against their officers.
The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) says that while some police forces deal with some 70 per cent of complaints by way of local resolution, an informal meeting between the complainant and the officer’s manager, others carry out investigations into the same proportion.
We know that the police complaints system is over-complex and over-bureaucratic, and that is part of the reason for the inconsistencies between forces.IPCC chairwoman Dame Anne Owers
IPCC Chair Dame Anne Owers said: “It is very unlikely that the profile of cases among forces varies so widely; so this appears to be a postcode lottery.”
Three quarters of police forces recorded a fall in 20515/16, but while there were “significant falls” in some forces, others saw “considerable increases”, the IPCC said.
Neighbouring forces in Yorkshire saw the biggest disparity in the country in complaints received. West Yorkshire recorded an increase of 49 per cent, giving it the second highest total in the country, 1,867, and North Yorkshire saw a drop of 44 per cent.
West Yorkshire Police also saw a 45 per cent increase in the total number of appeals made by dissatisfied complainants, a total of 398. The force attributed the rise to a recent change in recording practices and said the actual increase was more like 14 per cent.
Humberside Police recorded a two per cent increase in the number of complaints received, while South Yorkshire Police saw complaints fall by nine per cent in the same period.
Nationally, the number of complaints against police has dropped for the first time in three years, according to the watchdog.
There were 34,247 complaints made against forces in England and Wales in 2015/16, a drop of eight per cent on the previous year, which saw a record high, and the first decrease since 2012/13.
Three quarters of police forces recorded a fall. Police are expected to record complaints within 10 working days, and this was achieved in 88 per cent of cases, up from 80 per cent in 2014/15.
Despite the overall fall since 2012/13, when the definition of a complaint was broadened, the IPCC highlighted inconsistencies in the way that different forces deal with complaints.
Dame Anne said: “We know that the police complaints system is over-complex and over-bureaucratic, and that is part of the reason for the inconsistencies between forces.
“Forces can deal with complaints informally through local resolution, but if complaints are so serious that they could result in disciplinary action, they have to formally investigate them.
“When complainants are dissatisfied with a local police investigation, they can appeal. Some of these appeals are dealt with by the force itself, others come to the IPCC. We have previously expressed concerns about forces marking their own homework.
“Overall, the IPCC is twice as likely to uphold an appeal as local forces. Ten forces never upheld an investigation appeal.”
The IPCC found that while forces upheld 19 per cent of appeals against their own complaints investigations, when appeals came to the watchdog 41 per cent were upheld.
On average it took 166 working days, around eight months, for forces to investigate an allegation locally, which was 19 days longer than in 2014/15. This varied between 105 days in Cheshire, to 399 in Cleveland.
Complaint cases were finalised within an average of 116 days, six days longer than in 2014/15.
The IPCC, which deals with all appeals against a force’s decision not to record a complaint, upheld 40 per cent of the appeals in 2015/16.
Proposals are in place under the Policing and Crime Bill that aim to simplify the complaints system and ensure that all appeals are either heard by the IPCC or by the area’s Police and Crime Commissioner.
West Yorkshire Police changed the way it records complaints this year, meaning minor complaints such as failure to return a call are now recorded centrally and rather than being dealt with at district level.
Detective Chief Superintendent Julie Sykes of West Yorkshire Police said: “We take complaints against officers and staff very seriously with a department dedicated to investigating such issues.
“In the last few years every single aspect of the complaints system has been developed and improved to meet the needs of the public.
“Now more than ever it easier for members of the public to make a complaint and to be able to provide us with valuable feedback.
“Although West Yorkshire Police has experienced an increase in the number of complaints compared to the previous year, this is almost entirely due to the way in which complaints are now recorded following recommendations from the HMIC and IPCC to ensure the Force has the ability to appropriately check its own procedures and performance.
“Most recent data show that complaints have increased by 30 per cent, however, if we had continued to recorded complaints in the same way as in 2014/15 the increase would stand at 14 per cent.
“We are encouraging and accepting of complaints and will continue to look at every one individually to ensure they are resolved and where necessary learn lessons.”
Responding to the local figures, Head of Professional Standards for North Yorkshire Police, Detective Superintendent Maria Taylor, said: “North Yorkshire Police adhere rigidly to the statutory guidance surrounding the handling of complaints. This ensures the most thorough and fair investigations of complaints.
“Our local resolution rate is high, which we see as a real positive. This process means that complaints are dealt with more quickly and the lessons learned are more swiftly applied.
“The IPCC and the HMIC have been in force and reviewed our processes, and we have received positive feedback in relation to our handling of our local resolutions.
“We have a very low number of appeals to the IPCC. We believe this is due to our firm commitment to the complaints process and driving a satisfactory resolution for all involved.”