Keeping an eye on the force: life in the real Line of Duty

As the popular BBC drama returns, a former crime reporter takes a look at the reality of fighting police corruption

Last week, an officer from South Wales police received formal notification that they were under investigation regarding their dealings with a man who had been arrested and held overnight in a cell in Cardiff.

The suspect had been released from custody the following morning then found dead shortly afterwards. The investigation is to focus on whether the level of force used by the officer was “necessary, proportionate and reasonable” in the circumstances.

If this were a sub-plot in the BBC’s Line of Duty, the sixth series of which begins on Sunday, the officer would likely find themselves sat in a glass-walled interview room being questioned at length by the likes of Detective Sergeant Steve Arnott and Detective Inspector Kate Fleming.

In reality, the interviews will take place at the officer’s own station and will be conducted not by detectives, but by civilian investigators with no formal police experience or training.

Every police force in England and Wales has its own internal professional standards department which, like Line of Duty’s fictional AC-12, investigates a wide range of complaints and concerns against officers. However, all serious allegations of corruption, fraud and abuse of power, along with fatal shootings and deaths in custody, must be referred to an outside body – the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC). Founded in 2018, with a staff of around 1,000 and a budget of £72m, the IOPC is itself the size of a small police force but strives for independence to remove the long-held assumption among the public that, when officers investigate one another, they do so with significantly less rigour.

The organisation was created with a legal requirement that it could not be run by anyone with a policing background. Its director general, Michael Lockwood, is an accountant who was previously chief executive of the London borough of Harrow.

AC-12 at work.
AC-12 at work. In reality, the unit’s most serious cases would be referred to the IOPC. Photograph: Steffan Hill/BBC/World Productions/Steffan Hill

Not only does Lockwood have no policing experience, neither do any of the members of his executive team nor any of the regional directors of the IOPC. Although its investigators can take statements, gather exhibits, conduct interviews under caution and submit files of evidence to the Crown Prosecution Service in the same way police officers do, the vast majority do so without the benefit of any first-hand knowledge of policing. An increasingly vocal critic of this approach is the Police Federation of England and Wales (PFEW), which represents 130,000 rank-and-file officers. It claims that some of those leading investigations into alleged misconduct or corruption fail to understand even fundamental areas of the law.

“There are some very good people who work for the IOPC,” said Phill Matthews, of the PFEW, “but there are others where we see a staggering lack of knowledge. We don’t think they have the right depth, we don’t think they have the right training and they are absolutely unaccountable.”

The IOPC disagrees. “Our investigators come from a range of backgrounds – some have experience in the military, in human rights’ investigations or other similar fields,” said a spokesperson. “Suggesting that only police can investigate police is equivalent to saying only criminals can investigate criminals.

“Police officers also undergo professional development to acquire skills on the job or acquire expertise throughout their career – we are no different. On joining the organisation our investigators are trained in the necessary investigative skills, they are supervised and they cannot lead investigations until they are accredited.”

While this may be the case, of particular concern to the federation is the amount of time some IOPC investigations take. Some cases drag on for months or even years, during which time an officer may be placed on restricted duties or suspended on full pay, only to be exonerated later.

The PFEW has collected a number of case studies in which officers describe the devastating impact on their lives, their families and their careers of protracted investigations that see them spending years to clear their names. In some of the most alarming cases, evidence that would have cleared them had been available at an early stage of the investigation. Being under investigation – especially one that continues for some time – is a known suicide risk for police officers. On average, an officer takes their own life every two weeks, with many doing so shortly after learning that a case is being opened against them.

The federation says such deaths are “completely avoidable”.

DCC Wise (Elizabeth Rider) and DCS Carmichael (Anna Maxwell Martin) in Line of Duty.
DCC Wise (Elizabeth Rider) and DCS Carmichael (Anna Maxwell Martin) in Line of Duty. Photograph: World Productions/BBC

Another concern is that, while officers are obliged to cooperate with IOPC investigators, they are often not informed whether they are being treated as suspects or witnesses in a case for weeks or months after the investigation has begun. The IOPC recently set a limit of three months for this information to be provided to those under investigation – a time frame that would be unacceptable for cases involving members of the public.

But police officers are held to a different standard and treated very differently when they come under suspicion. While a member of the public can be arrested and compelled to be interviewed, officers in the earliest stages of investigations have to be invited, which can lead to significant delays while a suitable time slot is found.

It’s no surprise then that the issue of the time taken has come to the attention of the home affairs select committee which is running an inquiry into the police complaints system and the workings of the IOPC.

In February, the federation submitted a dossier as part of its submission to the committee which suggested the cost of protracted investigations ran to millions of pounds each year. The IOPC hit back, saying it did not recognise the figures which “are inaccurate, misrepresent our work, and risk undermining the system set up to maintain public trust in the complaints system and policing as a whole”.

The IOPC then went further, issuing a statement which suggested that many of the delays in the progress of cases were the fault of the federation. “We have many examples where requests to interview subject officers have taken months to action and where witnesses are given federation advice to not tell us what happened without taking legal advice. In some cases, officers who have been willing and prepared to speak to our investigators have withdrawn their cooperation. These actions unnecessarily prolong the process and contribute to the costs for everyone involved.”

It was a response that found little favour with rank-and-file police officers, many of whom pointed out it was the equivalent of complaining that the suspects they arrested were exercising their right to silence rather than just confessing at the earliest possible opportunity.

The increasingly bitter war of words between the two groups briefly threatened to wreck the progress that had been made in developing a more collaborative rather than confrontational working relationship, but the two sides are now talking once more and the IOPC is keen to publicise the fact that it has made solid progress in bringing down the time it takes to investigate misconduct cases.

Last year the IOPC received more than 4,300 referrals and completed around 700 investigations, of which 90% were completed in under 12 months, though this figure does not include those classed as “major investigations”. Of these, six out of the eight open cases have been running for more than a year.

Staff training is also set to undergo a makeover. At present, IOPC investigators have access to two BTEC level 5 qualifications developed specifically for the IOPC. From next month, training and accreditation will be further developed to align with the same standards that police officers have to adhere to, as set out by the College of Policing.

The PFEW’s Matthews acknowledges that it is all a step in the right direction. “Officers are rightly held accountable for their actions, and I absolutely condemn dishonest or inappropriate behaviour, but the IOPC often inexplicably pursues cases in which our members have acted properly.

“In many instances investigations which have gone on for five years or more have just ended in management advice or a written warning. We’re hoping better training for IOPC investigators will result in more time being freed up to uncover those that don’t deserve to be in the job.”

Contributor

Tony Thompson

The GuardianTramp

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