This article was written for and appears in amended form on the Open Democracy website
Today was the tenth anniversary of the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), set up in 2004 to replace another public body, the Police Complaints Authority, which had been wholly discredited by its failures during the 1990s. A creation of recommendations made by the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, the IPCC is charged with ‘increasing public confidence in the police complaints system in England and Wales’ as well as investigating serious complaints. It repeatedly claims to achieve this, but it has been mired in controversy throughout the last decade and in June 2011, its deputy chair Deborah Glass admitted to a private meeting that she accepted that “the police complaints system is not very effective and it doesn’t necessarily give people what they are seeking”. In 2013, a House of Commons Home Affairs Committee report found that the IPCC was “buried under the weight of poor police investigations” leaving the public “bewildered by its continued reliance on the very forces it is investigating”.
None of this will come as a great surprise to the families of those who have died in police custody, or the organisations that work with them. In March 2004, just before the IPCC began its work, members of the United Families & Friends Campaign, an alliance of custody death families, met with the Commission’s first chair, Nick Hardwick. The delegation told Hardwick that the IPCC had a great deal to prove if it wanted to distance itself from its disgraced predecessor. The Commission 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. In return, Hardwick promised that the IPCC would intervene immediately when a death involving the police occurred and that Chief Constables had “a legal obligation to co-operate” with its investigations.
A year later, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair prevented the IPCC from investigating the fatal shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell station for five days – allowing the police to make a number of blatantly inaccurate claims about the man they had shot and providing time for crucial evidence to disappear. That was in 2005. In 2009, it also took five days after hearing evidence that police may have been involved in the death of Ian Tomlinson, the newspaper seller who died after an assault at the G20 protests in London, for the IPCC to formally remove the City of London Police from its investigation. It is little wonder that the Tomlinson family accused the Commission of complicity on yet another cover-up.
Last week, the IPCC published a damning review into its work on cases involving a death in custody, which acknowledged that, time and again, the Commission has failed bereaved families. The report raises concerns about “insufficient attention to detail and a failure to gather and collate all evidence or to pursue all reasonable lines of inquiry”, with some families feeling “that they and those who had died were wrongly characterised or unfairly judged”.
Nor will the IPCC’s disfunctionality come as much of a shock to many in Britain’s black and Asian communities: to begin with, every year throughout the lifetime of the IPCC has seen the annual ritual of the release of stop & search figures showing huge disproportionality based on ethnicity. In 2013, black people were overall six times more likely than white people to be stopped: little changed from the statistics for the IPCC’s first year in 2004. The Commission’s own polling on public confidence in 2011 says that ethnic minority groups feel more disinclined to make complaints about their treatment by police for fear of being harassed afterwards and “that they won’t be taken seriously if they do complain”, combined with “the very low (and decreased since 2009) level of awareness of the IPCC, low levels of belief that it is independent, and a lower expectation of fair treatment than white respondents”.
Evidence submitted to the Home Affairs Committee by Newham Monitoring Project (NMP) highlights how in most of the everyday complaints the IPCC receives, it acts as little more than an appeals body – the dirty secret of the system is that the vast majority of police complaints are still handled internally, by ‘professional standards’ departments. Officers inside a force under investigation are allowed to summarise a complaint (without consulting the complainant) and by the time the IPCC gets to see allegations, they have often been so drastically reinterpreted by police officers that they are unrecognisable. NMP accuses the IPCC of failing to address the misuse of ‘local resolutions’, which professional standard officers almost always recommend and that can only ever result in ‘words of advice’ to an officer rather than any heavier sanction from a full investigation. It also says the Commission has done little to address the poor handling of first-stage complaints and, in a process worthy of Kafka, an appeal upheld by the IPCC is simply referred back to the professional standards department to reinvestigate – sometimes by the same investigator.
For all these reasons, the Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol), which includes NMP and that brings together activists, campaigners, lawyers and researchers to monitor excessive and discriminatory public order, protest and street policing, spent today talking about the IPCC’s “decade of failure” using the hashtag #IPCCFail:
Deborah Coles from INQUEST, the charity that supports families after a custody death, called the publication of last week’s review “a critical moment for the IPCC”, adding, “if they fail make this change their position is untenable.” It’s a view that Netpol shares. The Commission has now had ten years to fulfill the promises made by its first chair and to distance itself from a police complaints system that had, by 2004, grown into disrepute. So an entirely reasonable question is therefore this: how much more time are we prepared to given the IPCC before a more radical overhaul – something genuinely independent – becomes the only way forward?