Monday, 3 March 2008

A watchdog without teeth?

Criticism of the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) has been intensifying over the last week as the families of those alleging police misconduct, campaigners and community groups came out to back concerns raised by lawyers.

The credibility of the police watchdog set up in 2004 to replace the much criticised Police Complaints Authority was seriously undermined earlier in the month when more than 100 members of the Police Action Lawyers’ Group withdrew their support and two representative members, Tony Murphy and Raju Bhatt, resigned from its advisory board.

The forthcoming April issue of Legal Action reveals that this isn’t just a falling out between the IPCC and lawyers. Far from it, instead we talk to families, campaigners and commentators about their firsthand experiences dealing with what is widely regarded as a toothless watchdog. Tony Murphy, of London law firm Bhatt Murphy, rightly points out that proper investigation of complaints against the police has ‘long been held as essential to our democracy’. He says: ‘The leadership is failing to fulfil its responsibilities in relation to that vital task. Urgent action is needed if the IPCC is not to become another obstacle on the road to police accountability.’

The current row between the IPCC and its critics follows a letter sent to the body in January by Murphy and Bhatt in which the pair pointed out that they had participated in its advisory board representing the PALG because they felt it could be ‘an important means for the IPCC to take account of the interest of complainants and other stakeholders and that it could afford an important element of accountability’. However, they also acknowledge ‘significant scepticism and dissent’ amongst the group’s membership over the concern that they would be little more than window dressing. ‘Almost four years on, it is a source of deep disappointment to find that our involvement has reaped little benefit for the complainants represented by members. Indeed it has had a negative effect insofar as it has taken as a way from our clients the nil return,’ they wrote.

The IPCC chair Nick Hardwick denies the group is facing ‘a crisis of confidence’. He reckons its business as usual and the group continues to deal with PALG members ‘on a day-to-day basis without any problems’. ‘Sometimes we agree, sometimes we do not,’ he says.

However PALG members tell Legal Action that the views expressed by Murphy and Bhatt are shared throughout the group. ‘The IPCC should be playing an important constitutional role in holding the police to account when officers abuse their powers,’ says Jules Carey, head of the Police Action team at Tuckers. ‘The IPCC is failing dismally at this.’

Helen Shaw of INQUEST, which is on the IPCC advisory board, shares the ‘frustrations in trying to get the IPCC to listen to concerns from bereaved families over the quality of investigations and the way that the IPCC has approached families’. ‘Our experience has been until very recently that the IPCC has paid lip-service to what we’ve been saying,’ Shaw adds. The group has yet come to a decision as to whether it will resign from the board.

‘We feel that that IPCC hasn’t changed much from the days of the PCA,’ says Justin Waldron, cousin of Roger Sylvester who died after being restrained by six police officers who detained him under the Mental Health Act in 1999. The IPCC announced no officers were going to be disciplined in August 2007 despite an inquest verdict of unlawful killing in 2003. ‘We didn't think it was a thorough investigation to come to a decision that the officers shouldn't even be reprimanded,’ Waldron says. ‘It means the police are allowed to avoid scrutiny and accountability by the IPCC washing its hands of a case.’

The perception of the IPCC as ineffectual appears to be leading to a loss of confidence in the wider community as well। Stafford Scott, an independent adviser to the Metropolitan police Trident operation command unit (which investigates gun crime in the black community) and a chair of the black independent advisory group to the Metropolitan police borough command for Haringey, believes that the body has ‘no credibility’. ‘The confidence of complainants in the group provides a barometer to public confidence,’ he says. ‘We sue the police – that’s what we do now. We don’t go through the IPCC. We go through the civil courts.’

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