Why Are We Still Pretending This Police Watchdog Is Independent?

Of more than 23,000 complaints made about policing between 2020-2021, only 18 resulted in further action.

by Larry Lock

21 November 2022

Image shows a Greater Manchester Police officer wearing a yellow hi-vis police jacket and black cap standing on a rainy street, with their head bowed.
The Independent Office for Police Conduct is the fourth iteration of a watchdog for police forces in England and Wales.Ryan Jenkinson/Reuters

Two weeks ago, a few hundred people led a gathering in Trafalgar Square, holding banners and handing out flyers bearing the smiling portraits of loved ones. Their surnames were familiar: Kaba, Rigg, Lewis, Alder, Omishore. Those issuing the leaflets were their grieving families, who had joined the annual United Friends and Families Campaign procession. Held on 29 October every year, it sees the relatives of those who have died in the custody of the state – from police vans to psychiatric hospitals – march to Downing Street, demanding accountability for the deaths of their loved ones.

The families of Oladeji Omishore and Chris Kaba were new participants in this year’s march. Kaba, 24, was shot to death by police in September after the car he was driving was flagged as linked to a previous firearms incident. Omishore died in June following a confrontation with police on a London bridge that saw the 41-year-old tasered multiple times before he plunged into the Thames. The Kaba and Omishore families have now been forced to pursue justice for those they have lost. Like many before them, this means they are now forced to deal with the police’s shadowy oversight body: the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC). 

Policing the police.

The IOPC’s role in UK policing is complicated. Founded in 2018, it’s meant to oversee the police complaints system, which is the only way to get an individual police officer disciplined, suspended from duty, or prosecuted for their misconduct. However, the IOPC doesn’t actually investigate many complaints of police misconduct itself. The majority are handled internally by local police forces, meaning the police are often the ones charged with holding themselves accountable. 

The IOPC’s duty is to investigate the most ‘serious’ allegations of police misconduct (such as when someone dies as a result of contact with the police) and decides whether personnel involved will face a misconduct hearing or a criminal trial. But as it stands, it’s not often that a police officer is taken off duty following a death, and even rarer to see an officer charged with an offence. The prospect of an actual criminal conviction? Vanishingly small. 

Independent police oversight is fundamental to the notion that society consents to its own policing, a founding idea of policing in the UK. But historically, nearly all police misconduct investigations were handled internally. Think of Line of Duty’s AC-12 but with way less interest in actually finding the ‘bent coppers’. Internal investigations ensured the police could operate with impunity, as officers essentially were left to mark their own homework. 

In 1977 the Police Complaints Board (PCB) was set up to supervise senior officers’ decisions on police complaints, but it was essentially a reviewing body and was clearly biased in favour of the police. During its eight years of existence, the PCB challenged only 0.4% of senior officers’ findings, and eventually decided in the police’s favour in every single one of those cases. 

After the 1981 Brixton uprisings, themselves triggered by racist police using oppressive ‘sus’ stop and searches against Black Londoners, community leaders began calling for a truly independent police watchdog. Eventually, the government heeded the call; it was recommendations within the 1981 Scarman report on the uprisings – commissioned by then home secretary William Whitelaw – that led to the dissolution of the Police Complaints Board, replaced by the Police Complaints Authority in 1985. 

For many, the Police Complaints Authority was just as biased as its predecessor, but it really hit the headlines following the racist murder of teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993. The 1999 MacPherson report into Lawrence’s death and the “institutionally racist” Metropolitan police laid bare a story of corruption and collusion endemic in the complaints body. The report found that in their search for justice, the Lawrence family had faced a complaints system that actively shielded officers from scrutiny through chronic delays, a lack of independence from the police, and, in particular, the denial of racism in the police force. The report concluded that without independent oversight, public confidence in the police, particularly for communities of colour, would continue to suffer.

The Macpherson report led to the founding of the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) in 2004, a first attempt at an independent police watchdog. Crucially, the IPCC had the power to investigate the most serious allegations of police misconduct without involving the local police force. This no doubt improved appearances, but the IPCC’s ‘independent’ status was quickly marred in 2008 when over a hundred police law specialists resigned from its advisory body due to its poor decisions and police favouritism. 

There was also no coming back from the ‘investigation’ into the murder of unarmed Mark Duggan, who was killed by police in 2011 in Tottenham. Common knowledge has it that Duggan’s shooting was what sparked the nationwide unrest that followed. In fact, misinformation issued by the IPCC to journalists, suggesting Duggan had been armed when he was shot, led to an initially peaceful community protest outside Tottenham police station on 6 August 2011. But a confrontation between a teenager and a police officer at that protest, followed by the deployment of riot police, set off a powder keg that spread first across London and then to more major English cities. Two years later, the IPCC quietly cleared the officers involved in Duggan’s shooting of any wrongdoing, leading to allegations of a whitewash from Duggan’s family and further criticism of the “extremely close” relationship between the IPCC and the Met. 

Where are we today?

In 2018, the IPCC was dissolved and reformed as the IOPC, under the 2017 Policing and Crime Act. The change was internally attributed to the increased size of the IPCC, but the Home Office said at the time that the new structure would also ensure “greater accountability to the public”. 

There are some improvements: for instance, the IOPC now has the ‘power of initiative’, meaning it can automatically take charge of investigations (such as those following a death or serious injury), without waiting for the local police force to refer the case to them. The IOPC can also re-open previously closed investigations, as it did in the case of Kevin Clarke, who died following police restraint during a mental health crisis in 2018. 

But in some respects, things are still stuck in the past. One of the IOPC’s duties is to protect public confidence in the police, and a key component of that must surely be an accountable police force, where officers are disciplined for their bad behaviour. But of over 23,000 complaints made about poor policing between 2020-2021, only 18 resulted in a police officer facing a misconduct meeting or hearing. Complaints against police have risen 11% in the last 12 months, new figures also reveal.

The IOPC also seems hesitant to use its brand new powers. Last year powerful new evidence came to light about Duggan’s death, suggesting he may have never had a gun on him in the first place, and demonstrating that the police’s account was implausible. This should have resulted in the IOPC re-opening the IPCC’s investigation, but the watchdog caused outcry when it decided that the new evidence “had no impact” on the IPCC’s 2013 findings.

It is this sort of decision making that has forced the Omishore family to take legal action against the IOPC, who have decided to treat the officers involved in Oladeji’s death as witnesses to an offence and not suspects. 

Earlier this year, the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) published its own findings on the new police complaints system, concluding that a truly fair and open oversight body is still yet to be tabled. The HASC report found that the complaints system the IOPC is responsible for is still characterised by chronic delays and obstruction, echoing the findings of the Macpherson report over two decades ago. There is still no time limit on how long an investigation can take, and so investigations into police misconduct can become a long and often gruelling process. 

The old mantra “justice delayed is justice denied” is particularly true for the families of victims of police misconduct or brutality. Forcing them to wait for complicated and opaque investigations to conclude is cruel, and the IOPC’s stonewalling interferes with the natural grieving process, adding to existing trauma.

A revolving door?

Much is said in the HASC’s report about public trust, including whether the IOPC is truly independent from the police forces it purports to monitor. A large number of the IOPC’s senior investigating staff are themselves former police officers; 40% of them as of 2019, in fact. 

When questioned about the overrepresentation of ex-police in its ranks during the inquiry, the IOPC’s defence was that there are no better experts on police conduct than ex-police officers, and that expertise is needed for high quality complaint investigations. Undoubtedly ex-officers have some relevant experience to bring to investigating police complaints, but under this logic, so do successful complainants. After all, who else has better experience of police misconduct than its victims? A truly independent complaints body would surely be one that represents all sides of the story. 

It’s not just the voices of victims that are underrepresented at the IOPC. Less than one in five staff members come from a non-white background, despite the organisation’s claims it is proactive about understanding discrimination. Unsurprisingly, the complaints system is still failing victims of police discrimination; only 2% of complaints of discriminatory policing were actually upheld between 2019 and 2020. A 2021 parliamentary inquiry found that little has changed since the MacPherson report and that the IOPC remained “too complacent on matters of race”.

With virtually no other route available for holding the police accountable, victims of police conduct are forced to battle with the system as it stands. Legal action, such as the judicial review launched by the Omishore family, could lead to some changes. 

But it’s unlikely that these will be more than cosmetic; creating a truly independent police oversight body will take more than the courts, which themselves are constrained by legal precedent. A system that is directly involved with all police complaints, that empowers victims of police misconduct, and that isn’t tone deaf on police racism, will require a political will the likes of which British politics probably hasn’t yet seen. Until then, it likely falls to communities themselves through police monitoring groups to fill the gaps.

Larry Lock is a civil liberties lawyer in training.


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