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 Eighteen - Accessibility and communication

18.1 Complaining against the police is a serious act and, if they wish to do so, members of the public should be supported in making a complaint. Helping them to exercise their right to complain requires creating a complaints system that is accessible, receptive, comprehensible, speedy, and fair; it also requires that every person who has a part in delivering that system communicates well with the members of the public to whom they are providing the service. In short, it should be easy to complain, easy to get a response and easy to learn the lessons.

18.2 The system should also take into account the broad spectrum of people who make complaints, or who are put off making a complaint, and the range of their different motivations, needs and inhibitions. These members of the public range from the regular to the reluctant, those who are very vulnerable, those who wish to make consumer-type complaints, those who allege serious wrong-doing or misbehaviour and those who are regular participants in the criminal justice system. These groups are not mutually exclusive.

18.3 During the course of this Review I have seen and heard evidence about the barriers that exist to making a complaint. This chapter deals with how those barriers can be reduced or eliminated.

18.4 In my preliminary report I recommended that Police Scotland should simplify and streamline systems to make it as straightforward as possible for members of the public to navigate the rather opaque landscape and as easy as possible for them to access and understand information on how to make a complaint; in particular, the online complaints form on the Police Scotland website should be made more prominent. Police Scotland has reviewed, improved and tested access to their website to ensure that the online complaint form is now simple to access and that sufficient guidance is provided regarding the complaints process. As a result, searching online for how to complain is now easier and quicker.

18.5 I said in the Custody chapter at page 372 that the Letter of Rights given to people in custody should make clear that they have a right to complain. The Police Scotland website also has a Know your Rights[158] section for young people. That section should also be amended to make clear the right to make a complaint.

18.6 A number of police forces and constabularies in the United Kingdom use their websites not only as a means of accessing the complaints system but as a means of passing on compliments on the service that they have provided, saying 'thank you' or giving other feedback. This complain/compliment/comment approach is one that is commonplace in other parts of the public sector and one that Police Scotland should consider adopting. Awareness of the right to praise as well as how to complain should also be increased by displaying posters in police stations and other public buildings such as courts on how to make a complaint about Police Scotland or give feedback, both positive and negative.

Preliminary report recommendation: Police Scotland should simplify and streamline systems to make it as straightforward as possible for members of the public to navigate this rather opaque landscape and as easy as possible for them to access and understand information on how to make a complaint. In particular the online complaints form on the Police Scotland website should be made more prominent.

Allegations of criminality

18.7 I welcome the recent improvements to the Police Scotland website. However, both that website and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) website and the online police complaints leaflet[159] (August 2014) should be updated to include reference to reporting criminal allegations against the police direct to the COPFS. This reference must be conspicuous and prominent. Members of the public have the right to report such allegations direct to COPFS and I deal with that little‑known aspect of the system in the COPFS chapter at page 268.

Communication and language

18.8 Improving the accessibility of the police complaints system can take many forms. In the preliminary report I said that using candid and frank written responses outlining the outcome of a complaint was critical to maintaining public confidence; and that responses which are not clear or open have the potential to undermine the process. This was based on evidence provided of the use of ambiguous language in correspondence. Guidance on communication is available in the Principles of Inclusive Communication published by the Scottish Government[160] in 2011.

18.9 The style and language used in letters and e-mails that I have seen are mixed. Some are excellent, others are legalistic and lacking in empathy, sorrow or apology. The use of template letters can also be dangerous if they are not amended carefully to reflect the individual circumstances of the complaint. In one very serious case that was brought to my attention, where this was not done carefully, it resulted in a serious loss of confidence in the process on the part of the complainer. People who have poor experiences of the complaints system can become jaundiced, and in extreme cases that can lead to them thinking that the whole system is rotten.

18.10 I was struck during the Review that the practice of both Police Scotland and the PIRC was to conduct nearly all communication by letter or by e-mail. I met with a number of families and individuals whose accounts of their experiences were particularly harrowing but where the organisational response did not seem to recognise that the nature of their cases was such that what they needed was to see the human face of the organisation, or to be able to speak to someone face to face, or to hear a human voice. In such circumstances those operating the system should be able to demonstrate greater empathy and humanity towards members of the public but the system was not designed to allow that to happen. Human interactions can build relationships and prevent misconceptions, misunderstandings and pre‑empt lengthy correspondence.

18.11 One family told me about a letter of apology they received from Police Scotland about the circumstances around a complaint related their grown-up child:

"It almost re-traumatised [X], and probably us as well to be honest, and that's really difficult because emotionally as a human being you want some sort of outcome. You get a letter like that, it just compounds it."

"The biggest thing for me … just to be listened to, just to be actively listened to at initial point of contact for the investigation and take it seriously no matter what your views are, … just listen to that person."

18.12 The same family also told me:

"It's all designed to put you off. In my opinion it's all designed to exhaust you and to bring you to the point that you're just going to say: You know what, we're going to walk away."

"And I suppose maybe the other thing is their use of jargon and "giving reconsideration directions", that means nothing to us. And PIRC and Police Scotland, we are not interested in their jargon, their departments, we are interested in our complaint being answered timeously and seriously, and being investigated thoroughly in the first instance and not then having to go back to them again saying: We are really not happy with your responses."

18.13 Professor John McNeill, the previous Police Complaints Commissioner for Scotland and first holder of the office of the PIRC told the Review that:

"On reflection, one of my regrets was that I didn't meet with the complainers. In my current role with the armed services I do that and I recognise the benefits in doing so. I also take the view that many police cases are quality of service cases which could be resolved by an intervention from a senior or experienced person who would 'cut to the chase' and mediate or have a conversation with the complainer."

18.14 Many troubled or vulnerable individuals need human interaction rather than communication in writing. I recognise that if that facility is to be built into the complaints system to deal with certain cases then it does require that someone more senior should make a judgement on how to engage and that the officers then involved in that personal engagement should have appropriate training. I welcome Police Scotland's intention, stated in its annual police plan for 2020-21[161], to develop trauma-informed approaches to engagement. That is primarily in relation to children and young people but is exactly the approach that is needed for many of the adults who come into contact with the complaints system. That was reinforced in the evidence from the Scottish Women's Rights Centre[162](SWRC) who suggested in their submission that training for those handling complaints should also include trauma-informed practice to ensure they are alert to the barriers that those making complaints may experience.

18.15 SWRC went on to suggest that access to adequate support throughout the process is vital for survivors of gender‑based violence (GBV) (even where they are already engaged with services) and should be made available on receipt of a complaint to ensure their needs are considered during the process; and that as a matter of course, survivors should be offered the opportunity to have a support person or advocacy worker with them during any interview that relates to the complaint.

18.16 Clearly there are resource implications if less communication is to take place solely by letter or e-mail. Some written communication will always be appropriate and some bereaved or vulnerable people will always warrant a meeting in person, but the range of technology now readily available through telephony and video‑conferencing, such as MS Teams which is now commonly used by Police Scotland, could all facilitate more personal interactions with the public.

Resolution letters

18.17 Where complaints cannot be resolved by frontline resolution or complainers remain dissatisfied, candid, empathetic and frank written responses outlining the outcome are critical to maintaining public confidence; responses which are not clear or open have the potential to undermine the process. Evidence of the use of ambiguous language in correspondence was provided to this Review. For example, it was common practice for a final resolution letter to the complainer to feature the phrase, "the matter has been resolved", in circumstances where the final determination of that complaint by Police Scotland was that the complaint was not justified. Describing that outcome as "resolved" might readily be interpreted by the complainer as a positive outcome when in fact what is recorded on the Centurion complaints and conduct database in such cases is "Not upheld". This practice could be viewed as disingenuous and I understand has now ceased. Another poor example was saying in a letter that "it will be dealt with internally". That is mysterious and not at all transparent.

18.18 The working group that I proposed in the preliminary report has been established as the National Complaint Handling Development Group, involving Police Scotland, PIRC and the Scottish Police Authority (SPA). That Group should have a role in keeping under review the language used by Police Scotland in its correspondence with complainers, simplifying and clarifying the language used, with a view to increasing openness both with complainers around outcomes and with those who scrutinise Police Scotland. Furthermore, the group should oversee a review of the ACPOS[163] Guidance on the Recording of Complaints About the Police published in 2011. That task should consider in particular the definitions/use of 'incivility', 'excessive force' and 'detention'.

Language and translation

18.19 In the Inclusion, diversity and discrimination chapter at page 130 I comment on the reluctance of some minority groups to make a complaint to Police Scotland and the reasons for that. Those qualms can be compounded because individuals do not speak English as their first language. In their submissions to the Review both the Scottish Women's Rights Centre (SWRC) and Sikh Sanjog[164] highlighted that the Police Scotland website offers this advice: "If you would like this information in an alternative format or language - please phone us on 101 to discuss your needs." There are a variety of reasons why people may not wish to make such a call, including apprehension, language or anonymity. The existing guide to the police complaints system should be made available in the most frequently used languages in Scotland on all the relevant organisations' websites as well as in print format. The current version of the guide[165] dates from August 2014 and requires to be updated both now and on a regular basis thereafter.

18.20 The PIRC guide for the public[166] should similarly be made more easily available.

18.21 The PIRC confirmed in their submission to the Review that they can provide documentation in large print, have a British Sign Language (BSL) plan on their website and can provide audio replies. They are also giving consideration to having some of their core leaflets translated into the most frequently used languages in Scotland. Like Police Scotland, they currently offer to arrange for translation if requested.

18.22 I have also had evidence that the language being employed by PIRC review staff is also more constructive and less directive than it was when I began this Review and that is very much to be welcomed.

Official support and liaison for members of the public

18.23 Victim involvement, that is, allowing the complainer to be involved in the complaints process in order to safeguard his or her legitimate interests, is one of the five principles that the European Court of Human Rights has developed for the effective investigation of complaints against the police that engage Article 2 or 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

18.24 In all complaints it is important that individuals submitting a complaint to the police are supported throughout the process. The level of support should be proportionate to the seriousness of the complaint and the vulnerability of the complainer. The principal organisations provide varying degrees of support to members of the public whether they be complainers, victims of crime, witnesses or relatives. For example, Police Scotland and the PIRC employ specially trained Family Liaison Officers, and COPFS have a Victim Information and Advice service (VIA) with offices around Scotland. All three organisations also give information on a variety of appropriate support and advocacy groups on their websites.

18.25 Individuals who make complaints about the police may have vulnerabilities that should be taken into account by policing bodies. The Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO) produced a report[167]on complainers with vulnerabilities, which suggests that organisations should be mindful of a complainer's vulnerabilities and that types and levels of vulnerability can vary from person to person. The vulnerability may be influenced by circumstances linked to the complaint and other extraneous factors.

18.26 The Ombudsman, Rosemary Agnew, suggested to the Review that there were benefits in face-to-face engagement, for example by using people who had been trained to understand Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), that knowledge of mediation approaches and skills aimed at finding a resolution could be very valuable and that there might be a case for creating a Police Complaint Support Officer role.

18.27 In order to communicate effectively, SPSO use the principle of 'universal design' to ensure their services are accessible in a number of ways to suit different people and situations; are responsive and flexible in how they engage with people; and collect and use data to continuously improve services for vulnerable people. SPSO believe that 'universal design' is particularly important in the digital age, where the increased focus on online service delivery can inadvertently exclude some users (digital exclusion), for example by failing to take into account those without internet access or capability, or through poor content design. Digital exclusion often overlaps with other factors of vulnerability, such as disability or older people's vulnerabilities.

18.28 SPSO are committed to offering as many routes of access to their service as possible, including digital, phone, post and in person. The actions they can take if they are aware that the complainer may be vulnerable are:

  • Fast track individual cases.
  • Prioritise the progress of individual cases within their caseloads.
  • Manage expectations clearly from the outset.
  • Identify and signpost to sources of support.
  • Change how they communicate with someone.

Third-party support

18.29 The Police Scotland website states that, "If you prefer to be represented by another person, e.g. a solicitor, an elected representative, community group or some other organisation, that is acceptable and will not prevent you from making a complaint providing it is clear that you have given your authority for that person, group or organisation to act on your behalf." The website offers Citizens Advice Scotland and the Scottish Refugee Council as examples. I applaud that openness but the support available from third parties would be more concrete and more likely to be taken up if there was better sign-posting.

18.30 The complaints system examined by the Review and described earlier in the report currently gives the appearance of being designed in a way that does not take sufficient account of the needs of people with disabilities. Helping different people and diverse groups to make their complaints will always require different responses and some adjustment of process and practice. It is the responsibility of Police Scotland and the PIRC respectively to assess the vulnerability or neurodiversity of complainers and to make those reasonable adjustments for people who have disabilities, have autism or are vulnerable in some way.

18.31 In their submission to the Review the Scottish Women's Rights Centre (SWRC) highlighted the absence from the literature of guidance about what would be considered a serious complaint or criminal matter and that in their view this resulted in the process not always being straightforward, especially when those making the complaint are also dealing with trauma. They also listed reasons why survivors whom they support do not feel able to complain to Police Scotland, including:

  • The ongoing nature of their involvement with Police Scotland.
  • Receiving poor responses to previous complaints.
  • Concerns that submitting complaints before a case has been heard in court could unduly influence the outcome.
  • Complexity around cases involving dual and malicious reporting.
  • Distress at complaining to a state body that they may rely on in further matters.
  • Lack of trust that the complaints process will address the systemic issues they have faced.

18.32 SWRC also recommended to the Review that, in order to make the complaints process accessible, concrete reassurance would be required that making a complaint would not have an adverse impact on the handling of a criminal case that a victim had reported. This was echoed by the Law Society of Scotland in its early submission to the Review:

"There is a general perception from our members that it can be difficult to advise a client whether or not to make a complaint. The question of timing of a complaint is an issue. If there is an ongoing criminal case, that may not be the best time to make a complaint. There is a lack of confidence even if the complaint has been raised and is being dealt with by other officers, independent of the criminal case, that such processes are truly transparent and unbiased. Raising a complaint after the criminal case has been resolved may be much too late."

18.33 The Police Scotland website asks readers: "How would you like to be contacted? Please provide your preferred method of contact." I commend that flexible offer but the range of methods for making complaints should be expanded to meet differing needs and reflect modern means of communication. For some people the thought of attending the police station would be enough to put them off making a complaint while for others who are digitally excluded using the internet to send an e‑mail is not an option.

18.34 In its submission to the Review the Law Society of Scotland said:

"There are also implications from an equality and diversity perspective where increasingly, the vulnerable are coming into contact with the criminal justice system in all capacities, be it as a witness or accused, who may well wish to make a complaint. The procedures for making a complaint must allow that to be done which will need to take account of any reasonable adjustments in respect of these issues and for instance, where a complainer's language is not necessarily English. These problems may well be compounded with police station closures or those that have limited operating hours. Those seeking to complain may be required to travel a significant distance or to find a time when the police station is open. Just what processes exist for online reporting may not work for all where they may not have access or be able to access computers. In some small local jurisdictions making a complaint may be difficult because of the need as highlighted above for public confidence as well as practicality that such matters will be treated as confidential."

18.35 For the majority of people, interacting with the police is a rare thing and something that they would prefer not to have to do. The police service should be sensitive to that apprehension and should make the effort to accommodate personal preferences. Those seeking to make a complaint should not be asked to come to a police station if they are not comfortable in doing so, while officers should not attend people's homes without prior agreement. The Review heard evidence of the negative effect that uniformed officers coming to their door had on the perception of their neighbours. That is the kind of issue that Police Scotland need to consider and, where they can, they should ensure that they engage on the individual's terms and in a way with which they are comfortable.

18.36 On the basis of the evidence that I received, and in particular what I heard in the community focus groups, I have concluded that increasing the level of third-party support for complainers would enhance the accessibility of the complaint system in a very positive way.

18.37 In the Inclusion, diversity and discrimination chapter at page 130 I discuss the support available to victims and witnesses of hate crime who do not feel comfortable reporting the matter directly to the police. Police Scotland work in partnership with a wide variety of partners who perform the role of third‑party reporting centre for hate crime and Police Scotland list on their website around 500 organisations as third‑party reporting centres in Scotland to whom hate crime can be reported.

18.38 I recommend that Police Scotland should have discussions with a number of the third‑party reporting centres for hate crime and secure their agreement to offer third‑party support for those who wish to make a complaint against the police. In addition to the two organisations currently listed on the website, I suggest that a number of the most relevant organisations, including those representing minority groups, might be added.

Customer service principles

18.39 In terms of standards of customer service, complainers should reasonably expect to receive a sincere apology and any appropriate action when that is justified, know that they will be listened to respectfully and be given a clear and candid explanation of the causes of any failing or perceived failing. They are also entitled to have their telephone calls returned promptly, have any communication acknowledged and responded to timeously and be kept advised both of progress and of what steps will be taken to address the issue. The public have a legitimate expectation that they will receive fair treatment at all times; police officers and support staff also have a right to be treated fairly when being held accountable for their actions.

18.40 Every complaint is important to the complainer. The recipient of the complaint should be receptive and from the start the premise should be that the complaint is taken at face value, will be dealt with politely, with an open mind and from an impartial standpoint.

18.41 A recurring theme in the evidence to the Review from members of the public was that the complaints process took too long to conclude and that they often had to chase Police Scotland or the PIRC to find out what progress had been made. As a matter of course both organisations should give their customers clear expectations around how long it will take to resolve a complaint or complete a complaint handling review and thereafter provide regular updates.

18.42 Police Scotland should develop, in consultation with relevant organisations, and publish realistic but stretching targets for completing the key stages of the complaints handling process. These should be consistent with any relevant statutory provisions and the statutory guidance contained in 'From sanctions to solutions'[168]or its successor document. It would not be appropriate to put such detailed targets into statute but they should be published; performance should be measured and be the subject of regular report. The SPA Complaints and Conduct Committee should scrutinise that performance and hold Police Scotland to account where they are not being achieved.

18.43 PIRC should also publish their performance against set targets for complaint handling reviews and investigations in the Commissioner's annual report.

18.44 Not only is it in the public interest that this area of Police Scotland and PIRC activity is transparent, but clear expectations, better communication and improved performance will enhance public confidence generally and reduce the anxieties for all individuals involved in the process.

Recommendations in relation to accessibility and communication

18.45 Recommendation: Police Scotland should publicise the right to complain as well as how to complain by displaying posters in police stations and other public buildings on how to make a complaint about, pay a compliment to, or submit a comment on Police Scotland.

18.46 Recommendation: The Know your Rights[169] section of the Police Scotland website for young people should be amended to make clear their right to make a complaint.

18.47 Recommendation: Police Scotland should have discussions with a number of the third‑party reporting centres for hate crime, including those representing minority groups, and secure their agreement to offer third‑party support for those who wish to make a complaint against the police.


Email: ian.kernohan@gov.scot

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