Policing - complaints handling, investigations and misconduct issues: independent review

First independent review of complaint handling, misconduct and investigations since the creation of new policing structures in 2013. Dame Elish Angiolini reviewed the effectiveness of the new systems for dealing with complaints against the police, how well complaints are investigated and the processes involved.

Chapter Eight - Policing culture

8.1 At one level Scotland's distinctive policing culture derives from the historical context within which Scottish policing has operated: in a separate jurisdiction and legal system, the unique role of the Lord Advocate, the ethos of the Scottish Police College where all new recruits complete their probationary training and the traditions of the pre‑reform forces, constabularies and agencies. At another level the culture of Police Scotland is shaped by the men and women who serve in it and their public service values, their sense of fairness, morality and solidarity, their common sense, and their desire to help the community, the victim, the bereaved and the vulnerable. Such values motivate them to become police officers or support staff in the first place. Many of the strengths of our policing organisations are down to that motivation to fulfil a unique and privileged role in society. Police Scotland's Code of Ethics[66], based on the values of integrity, fairness and respect supports that culture by setting very clear standards and expectations for all members of the service.

8.2 Policing culture is not monolithic and there are variations across Scotland. The cultures of the eight regional forces still exert a strong influence, not least because the majority of the officers now serving in Police Scotland began their policing careers with those pre‑reform forces.

8.3 The tone and culture of policing comes from the top: in the case of Police Scotland from the Chief Constable and the Force Executive; for the SPA it means the Chair, Chief Executive and Authority members; and in the case of the PIRC it stems from the Commissioner and her senior management team. Those leaders are critical in creating a constructive atmosphere between Police Scotland, the SPA and the PIRC, and those relationships are one of the mechanisms which should facilitate the effective operation of the checks and balances within the oversight and scrutiny arrangements. Police Scotland is a young but now established national organisation with a stable leadership team. In the preliminary report I suggested that this was a good juncture to reflect on the culture of the new service, address any long‑standing issues and consider how everyone in the organisation can help to change that culture for the better.

8.4 A number of cultural factors affect how police officers and support staff engage with the public and interact with each other in the workplace. The police service has always been structured around a command and control hierarchy, strict discipline, adherence to lawful instructions from a senior rank and rules that are often set out in statute. As a result, the culture is formal, deferential and respectful of rank.

Culture, conduct and complaints

8.5 A number of individuals and organisations touched on questions around culture in their evidence and offered valuable insights.

8.6 One senior official who gave early evidence to the Review described the culture around conduct and complaints in Police Scotland in this way:

"I think it's primarily a line management issue rather than an HR issue. I think it's about a cultural issue and it comes from the top. It's about the culture which is set by the senior team as a whole about standards of behaviour and about ethics and values and tolerance of uncomfortable conversations, and people's preparedness to hold difficult conversations which are necessary as a normal part of line management rather than giving it to the Authority to sort out, or someone else, which at times can be a way of avoiding dealing with the issue directly."

8.7 In one evidence-gathering interview a senior serving officer told the Review that:

"I think what we haven't done is we haven't given line managers, inspectors and sergeants in particular, the skills to deal with some of these issues and to resolve them and to accept that a grievance sometimes means that not everybody's happy; that can be an outcome."

8.8 In their response to the Review's call for evidence the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman offered a pragmatic view of the elements that are critical to the success of any complaints process, namely:

  • a culture of valuing complaints and willingness to learn from complaints, established by consistent and supportive leadership, with appropriate governance structures in place;
  • an emphasis on frontline resolution which is backed up by training and support to empower frontline staff to resolve complaints early; and
  • evidence‑based conclusions with fully explained reasoning for findings.

8.9 Throughout this report I emphasise the crucial importance of living up to professional standards, ensuring a balance between confidentiality and transparency, declaring conflicts of interest, ensuring appropriate levels of independence in investigation, giving early consideration to mitigating factors and having systems that accord with principles of natural justice. Achieving all of that depends to a large degree on the culture or cultures that exist across the service.

8.10 During the course of this Review I have formed the view that that Police Scotland's command and control culture, which is essential to operational effectiveness, is a significant contributing factor in fashioning an internal approach to the disciplinary system that kicks in early and quickly, while other processes involving HR and the grievance procedure are underused. No one should be surprised that when looking into conduct within their ranks police officers tend to behave like police officers and revert to using their professional investigatory skills but that can often be disproportionate to the circumstances.

8.11 The evidence suggests that often cases that are pursued as conduct issues should have been dealt with through the grievance procedure, many pursued as grievance should actually have been sorted out through mediation, and some which used a formal mediation mechanism might simply have been handled in a conversation between an individual and their line manager.

8.12 The Police Scotland culture can also have a significant bearing on interactions with members of the public who may have a particular perception of the police or a fear of the police which puts them off complaining because of the perceived likely response or consequences. It is important that police officers at all levels are cognisant of that power imbalance when they are responding to a complaint from a member of the public. Individuals who are interacting with the public need to have an understanding of their own power as well as empathy and emotional intelligence. On the other hand, the system needs to recognise that being complained about as a police officer is a serious matter that can have serious effects on the individual and long-term consequences.

8.13 I discuss in detail some of these crucial cultural issues as they affect officers, staff, members of the public and minority groups in the Inclusion, diversity and discrimination chapter at page 130.

Leadership and management culture

8.14 As I make explicit in the Officer and support staff welfare chapter at page 402, Police Scotland should be striving for a supportive line management and mentoring culture in which everyone feels able to ask for help whenever they need it without hesitation and to get that help without conditions. In policing, some level of complaints from the public is inevitable. It is an occupational hazard but when complaints are received the culture should be one of valuing them for the insight they offer and the potential for learning and self‑awareness that they provide.

8.15 I recommend that Police Scotland's Executive team should consider in depth and review the criteria and competencies that it uses to assess police officers' readiness for promotion. Those are the attributes that are perceived to be of importance to the organisation, that should reflect its values of integrity, fairness and respect and that should mould its management culture.

Preliminary report recommendation: Police Scotland is a young but now established national organisation with a stable leadership team. This is a good opportunity to reflect on the culture of the new service, address any long-standing issues and consider how everyone in the organisation can help to change that culture for the better.

8.16 Recommendation: Police Scotland's Executive team should consider in depth and review the criteria and competencies that it uses to assess police officers' readiness for promotion.


Email: ian.kernohan@gov.scot

Back to top