Who's Policing The Police?
Investigation into the activities of the Police Complaints Authority
For the first time in its history, a prominent European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) has been censored by a nation under investigation. And that nation is us. Si Mitchell reviews the implications of the CPT's damning indictment of police malpractice in the UK and reveals why Jack Straw is so keen for the cover up.
On December 16 1994, two police officers arrested Shiji Lapite, a Nigerian asylum seeker on suspicion of possession of drugs. One officer applied a neck hold and the other admitted kicking the suspect in the head. Lapite died from asphyxiation. An inquest jury returned a verdict of unlawful killing, but the CPS refused to prosecute the officers responsible, claiming insufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction. The Police Complaints Authority decided not to push for disciplinary action.
The decision not to prosecute Lapite's killers, along with those of another man who died in custody, Richard O'Brien, and the exposed torture of Derek Treadaway at the hands of the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad, triggered a visit to Britain from the Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) in September 1997. In March 1998, the CPT submitted its subsequent report to the British Government. The convention under which the committee operates allows the nation state concerned power to veto their reports. The Government (who has given conflicting answers to parliamentary questions about the report's whereabouts) sat on the document until Jan 13, when a censored version - complete with blanked out text - was finally released. No one, not even notorious human rights abusers like Turkey, has censored a CPT report before. We had the choice of not publishing at all or publishing this abridged form, said Mark Kelly of the CPT. Raju Bhatt, the solicitor who represented both Lapite's widow and Treadaway, described the document as a damning indictment of modern democracy. He says the process for investigating police officers is no more than an exercise in mitigation, designed solely to clear their names.
THE POLICE COMPLAINTS AUTHORITY (PCA), IS DESCRIBED AS ILL EQUIPPED TO CARRY OUT THE WATCHDOG ROLE IN WHICH IT HAS BEEN CAST.
The report (even minus the deleted memos sent by Metropolitan Police lawyers to high-ranking officers) is brutally critical, raising serious questions about the independence and impartiality of the procedures presently used to process complaints about police misconduct. Out of the 10,243 complaints lodged against the police in England and Wales during 1996/97 only 141 (0.4 per cent) resulted in criminal and/or disciplinary proceedings. In the same period only a single Metropolitan police officer was convicted of an offence against a yearly background of around six thousand complaints. The Police Complaints Authority (PCA), is described as ill-equipped to carry out the watchdog role in which it has been cast.
The PCA disputes these figures, saying over half of the complaints are granted 'dispensation', or withdrawn by the complainant. This happens if a complaint is considered repetitious, malicious, is filed more than twelve months after the incident, or if it is not 'reasonably practical' to carry out an investigation. "...We neither see or want to see the majority of complaints...", said an agitated Authority spokesman who disputed the CPT's claims that there is little public confidence in the PCA's independence. He said the committee had failed to understand the British criminal justice system.
The CPT's visiting team comprised two UK lawyers and a British trained High Court judge. On January 13, the outgoing Met Commissioner, Sir Paul Condon, called for a truly independent complaints authority. The CPT criticises the substantial degree of influence the police retain over the entire complaints process. Both the PCA and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) are entirely reliant on evidence gathered by the police, in most cases by officers employed by the same force as that under investigation. As the report says: "In the vast majority of cases the investigating officer will be a police officer from the force about which the complaint is being made, although the chief officer may exceptionally decide to appoint a police officer from another force..." The majority of cases are unsupervised by the PCA. The role of 'chief officers', it says, needs to be reviewed. At present they are expected to oversee the disciplinary process from beginning to end, including appointing an investigating officer and determining what disciplinary action, if any, to take. It is doubtful whether any single officer is able to perform all of these functions in an entirely independent way, says the report.
I'VE ASKED MY SOLICITOR TO SUE SOUTH WALES POLICE, O'BRIEN TOLD SQUALL. BUT I DON'T THINK ANY ACTION WILL BE TAKEN. I'VE NEVER SEEN A POLICE OFFICER DONE YET FOLLOWING A MISCARRIAGE OF JUSTICE CASE.
Despite being bound by the Crown Prosecutors Code, which states a charge must be brought whenever there is a realistic prospect of conviction or it serves the public interest, the CPT found that the unwillingness of the courts to convict police officers has created a reluctance [within] the CPS to bring charges against them. This in turn has led to a higher standard of proof being required to charge police men and women, than is required for the rest of the population. The CPS said that the Glidewell, Macpherson and Butler inquires (all published since 1997) have covered much of this ground. Judge Gerald Butler QC described the system used by the CPS for selecting who to prosecute as confused, inefficient and fundamentally unsound. Despite numerous recommendations, Raju Bhatt points out: "We are yet to see much action from Jack Straw's action plan".
Michael O'Brien of the Cardiff Newsagent Three, had his conviction for murder quashed in December 1999. He spent 11 years in prison during which time his daughter and father died. "I've asked my solicitor to sue South Wales police", O'Brien told SQUALL. "But I don't think any action will be taken. I've never seen a police officer done yet following a miscarriage of justice case".
Paddy Hill, who spent 18 years for the 1975 Birmingham pub bombings in jail before his conviction was overturned, points out that there have been over 300 exposed miscarriages of justice since the Guildford Four were released in 1985, yet the system has not been improved. "They're just getting better at covering their tracks", says Hill.
"THERE'S NO STATUTORY TIME LIMIT ON CRIME. BUT IF ANY CHARGES ARE BROUGHT AGAINST POLICE OFFICERS, THEY GO SICK AND THEN THEY RETIRE. THEY GET EIGHTY PER CENT OF THEIR WAGE, AND THEY ARE OUT OF TROUBLE".
- PADDY HILL, One of the Birmingham Six
Hill and O'Brien are in the process of setting up a Miscarriage of Justice Organisation (MOJO) which will offer legal, forensic and support services to victims of bad justice. They plan to launch it in June. Unlike the rest of the population, police officers have retained the 'right to silence' in their disciplinary procedures. A Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry in December 1997 recommended that this be brought into line with standard criminal proceedings. It concluded: "There is a great deal of justified dissatisfaction with elements of the disciplinary and complaints system".
Other proposals by the Select Committee, endorsed by the CPT report, include greater independence in police adjudication panels (at present often consisting of a single senior officer sitting in private) and greater commitment in establishing if an officer is genuinely sick, when seeking retirement. Paul Barrat of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) said: "When an officer has served 30 years, they have the right to retire". According to Paddy Hill this is a ruse to escape disciplinary action: "There's no statutory time limit on crime. But if any charges are brought against police officers, they go sick and then they retire. They get eighty per cent of their wage, and they are out of trouble".
THE COMMITTEE ALSO CALLED FOR THE CROWN PROSECUTION SERVICE TO BE REQUIRED TO GIVE DETAILED REASONS WHEN IT DECIDES NOT TO PROSECUTE OFFICER AND THE POLICE COMPLAINTS AUTHORITY SHOULD BE REPLACED BY A FULLY-FLEDGED INDEPENDENT AGENCY.
The Police Federation says its officers are not above the law. But as Jimmy Robinson, cleared for the murder of newspaper boy Carl Bridgewater in 1997, says: "The CPS took no action against the eleven officers in my case, despite Appeal Court judges urging them to do so".
Unable to gain satisfaction in the criminal justice system many have chosen to pursue their grievances through the civil courts. In 1996/97 the Met paid £2,658,000 in damages (either awarded by, or settled out-of, court), in over 1,100 civil actions. The PCA's spokesman pointed out that the standard of proof is lower in a civil court, with the decision reached on the balance of probabilities compared to the stricter criminal standard of beyond reasonable doubt. However the CPT maintain that the gravity of these cases make the courts seek a very high degree of probability and distinguishing between the two standards, does not explain the failure to bring charges against officers whose conduct has been called into question in civil proceedings. The CPT studied four cases in detail where substantial payouts had been made following allegations of assault by officers. The one consistent thread was that no action was subsequently taken against any of the officers concerned. Despite the police being under legal obligation to initiate an investigation and send the results to the CPS, no senior Complaints Investigation Branch (CIB) officer questioned could recall this ever happening. In one example, the civil court even turned up eyewitness evidence - of a man being mauled by a police dog while handcuffed - that the CPS had overlooked.
"THE POLICE COMPLAINTS AUTHORITY IS DISCREDITED AND IS A DISCREDIT".
- RAJU BHATT - defence barrister.
In conclusion the CPT recommended a review of all cases in the last two years that resulted in a payout in excess of £10,000. In each case, it says, the decision not to bring disciplinary/criminal charges should be reconsidered. The committee also called for the CPS to be required to give detailed reasons when it decides not to prosecute officers and the PCA should be replaced by a fully-fledged independent agency.
"The PCA is discredited and is a discredit", says Raju Bhatt, adding that it is widely accepted the authority will be replaced. However it is less a question of who will police the police, but how they will be policed and how they are seen to be policed. Bhatt says he understands officers "...have a difficult job to do. But to do it they need public confidence. To get that they must be seen to be answerable to the rule of law and subject to fair and impartial investigations. Transparency is the key. That's what we need". He believes the situation is not helped by the Government dragging its feet on implementing promised changes, or by the continued resistance towards prosecuting those who even Sir Paul Condon has described as bad officers. ACPO says it has introduced measures to significantly reduce pensions for officers discharged for misconduct. However, ACPO's Paul Barrat was unable to give an example of this actually happening.
A Judicial Review last year compelled the CPS to explain their decisions not to prosecute in the Lapite, O'Brien and Treadaway cases. However legal manoeuvering and the passage of time scuppered any potential convictions. Treadaway's was granted £50,000, only to die within a month of the hearing. The police have issued guidelines discouraging the type of neck hold which killed Lapite, though they stress it is not unlawful. As with any use of force, the question to be considered is: 'Was it reasonable in the circumstances?' Lapite's widow, ground down by years of fighting, has chosen not to fight on, but to try and rebuild a life for herself and her children.
"Justice?" asks Paddy Hill. "They haven't got the integrity or intelligence to spell it let alone dispense it."
The Home Office say they will respond to the CPT's report in February.
* To view the entire, though censored, CPT report check: http://www.cpt.coe.fr/en/press/20000113en.htm
* For more background information on miscarriages of justice check Getting Away With It in the SQUALL Features section.