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 Twenty-six - Officer and support staff welfare

26.1 It goes without saying that police officers do a difficult and often dangerous job in Scottish society. Given the very challenging nature of the role, the police service has an important duty of care to its officers and staff. It also has legal obligations under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974[260].

26.2 Police officers and staff must be valued, supported and carefully debriefed when, in the course of their duties, they have experienced something which was particularly traumatic or difficult. Such experiences are common for frontline police officers and the service must pay particular attention to their welfare needs and the effects of both regular trauma, confrontation or anger in the course of their duties as well as particular issues that can be derived from a major disaster or exceptional incident. Different people react differently to stress and trauma, for some the reaction will be mild but for others their response can be extreme and include self‑harm.

26.3 The issue of mental health should be of paramount importance for the police service. As I said in the Custody chapter at page 372, mental health issues are commonplace in all areas of society, so Police Scotland needs to look after every person in the service and has to understand better the people and communities they serve.

26.4 Police officers and staff also need support from Police Scotland when they are the subject of a complaint (which may or may not be justified); when they are the subject of an investigation (and presumed innocent); when they may be suspended from duty; when they pursuing a grievance resulting from discrimination or other cause through an internal process; and when they are the subject of a malicious allegation from whatever source. Being the subject of a complaint can have a serious impact on officers and the Review was told that the resultant risk of losing their job can be a source of grave anxiety for officers. The prospect of a complaint, or the possibility of a malicious complaint, might also affect how an officer deals with a situation for fear of the potential repercussions.

26.5 A senior solicitor who represents officers who are the subject of complaints expressed concern about a common feature of cases being the failure to understand even at an early stage when subject officers are displaying signs of mental ill-health, exhaustion, domestic difficulties or other causes of severe stress:

"… when you dismiss an officer you lose all your human capital, so you spend 20 years training them, paying them, they become more and more professional in expertise at the job and then you throw them out the door for a single incident. That to me seems insane from an organisational point of view, you're disposing of the human capital rather than saying: Can we correct something that has happened? So conciliation, mediation."

Call for evidence

26.6 The Review received evidence from officers about the impact that complaints can have on them and their families, including damaging effects on their mental health. In order to learn more about how involvement in the police complaints system affects officers and members of the public the Call for Evidence specifically invited evidence about the experiences of people who had been involved in the process. They were asked to describe their experience and a large proportion of the responses centred around officer welfare and support.

26.7 In their written evidence a significant number of the respondents cited a lack of welfare or support from senior or line management. It was also stated that during an investigation, the police were not afforded the same protection as the public. The lack of support, and the time taken for investigations to be completed led to a significant number of respondents (mainly police officers) stating that it caused them stress, anxiety, or had led to depression, and had adversely affected family life. It was also felt that there was a prevailing attitude, before any formal determination had been made, that an officer was guilty. This feeling was compounded by the lack of information given to officers on the progress of the complaint. As one officer put it:

"This ongoing investigation has placed unimaginable stress on my family and I as well as raising questions regarding the future of my career. Not knowing whether or not I will be keeping my job due to an unfounded allegation and having to support my family is absolutely terrifying."

26.8 That individual example of the reality of being under investigation illustrates the full impact that it can have on the individual complained against and highlights the importance of ensuring a fair and proportionate response to all allegations. We also heard evidence from other officers who had made complaints or grievances who experienced similar pressure or anxiety but felt inadequately supported through a prolonged process.

26.9 In their written evidence the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman highlighted the need to support people who are the subject of a complaint as a critical component of a culture that values complaints. Their thematic report "Making complaints work for everyone"[261]focused on the impact of complaints on staff and suggested that being subject to a complaint can have an adverse impact on the individual involved and could limit, rather than promote, learning and change. Their report suggested that organisations need actively to support their staff through complaints processes and engage staff in positive and purposeful activities to manage and learn from complaints.


26.10 It is important that the police have appropriate processes and services to help and support their people based on early intervention and diversion. Those preventative processes have the potential to resolve issues early and avoid unnecessary and resource-intensive escalation down a potentially punitive avenue such as the conduct regulations. An early intervention approach from line managers, involving professional HR advice and welfare services when necessary, can help to deal with issues and potentially prevent bad behaviours manifesting themselves later. Where it is necessary and proportionate to go down the conduct route the organisation must continue to look after its people throughout that process.

26.11 Police Scotland confirmed in its most recent submission to the Review that following discussions involving Professional Standards Department, People and Development, the Scottish Police Federation and the Association of Scottish Police Superintendents, agreement was reached on the introduction of enhanced support mechanisms related to an officer's welfare and overall wellbeing during an investigation, particularly when they require to be arrested and/or suspended from duty. In situations where an officer is to be placed on restricted duties during investigation, each case will continue to be risk‑assessed to determine the individual support package required.

26.12 The Home Office Statutory Guidance on Professional Standards, Performance and Integrity in Policing[262] makes an important and relevant point, "It is important that there is a balance between the welfare of the officer concerned and the need for the investigation to progress as quickly as possible in the interests of justice, the police service and the police officer subject to investigation" and quotes the Home Office goal for police wellbeing[263] in England and Wales:

"By 2021, policing will ensure that every member of the police service feels confident that their welfare and wellbeing is actively supported by their police force throughout their career, that a culture supporting this is embedded in every force, and that individuals have access to appropriate support when they need it. This includes physical and mental health as well as the broader concept of wellbeing - which enables individuals to realise their potential, be resilient, and be able to make a productive contribution to the police workforce."

26.13 In 2017 Sir Thomas Winsor, HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary for England and Wales, speaking on the subject of officer and staff welfare said:

"It is vital that the mental health and welfare of police officers and staff are assessed properly by forces, and that they are given the support they need. Not only is this important for the individuals, but on a more systemic level, it matters to the effectiveness and efficiency of the force. If a police force's most important assets – its people – are under undue strain, whether in terms of workload or the nature of the work they do and the effects of that work on them, the force's ability to service the public is compromised."

26.14 It is clear that this description applies with equal force in the Scottish context.

26.15 Home Office and HMICFRS documents have no status in Scotland, which is a separate jurisdiction, but the extracts above do succinctly capture how all police services should look after their people.

Support services provided by Police Scotland

26.16 Police Scotland's Annual Police Plan 2020-21[264] aims to "Enhance the wellbeing programme as part of its people strategy, to support a healthy working environment including the delivery of a wellbeing framework". Police officers and staff have access to a wide range of support services in relation to their mental and physical wellbeing, including through the Your Wellbeing Matters scheme. Police Scotland launched their wellbeing programme in September 2017. The Police Scotland website contains a very accessible and easy‑to‑follow description[265] of Your Wellbeing Matters and the services available.

26.17 Police Scotland has a small wellbeing team. The wellbeing manager manages the Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) contract, the occupational health contract and the overall wellbeing programme. That programme includes the provision of volunteer wellbeing champions across the service. The wellbeing manager line manages one colleague in a small team that has shrunk from seven staff to two. Such a small number of staff having responsibility for programmes to deal with the needs of all 23,000 support staff and officers in the organisation seems to be insufficient and to lack resilience.

26.18 The Police Scotland wellbeing programme takes into consideration social, physical, psychological and financial factors. Management information from the Employee Assistance Programme shows that the majority of stress and anxiety originates at home rather than work, with financial, relationship, gambling and alcohol matters topping the list. The service is seeing a higher propensity for people to develop gambling problems and has changed its focus from viewing this as a conduct issue to viewing it as a wellbeing issue.

26.19 The wellbeing programme has three main strands of support available to officers and staff. In April 2015 Police Scotland launched the Occupational Health (OH) contract. OH mainly deals with physical health, whereas the Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) is mostly for mental health or other issues. The third strand is the support provided by wellbeing champions.

26.20 The Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) provides support to staff and officers with mild to moderate psychological issues. After every incident, line managers should be asking individuals if they want to access to the EAP. It is available 24/7 and immediately after any incident. Individuals are offered up to six sessions initially although this can be extended to eight sessions. If there is cause for more than eight sessions, then it is classed as long‑term care which is the responsibility of the NHS. If the trained EAP counsellor has a serious concern for an individual's wellbeing, then their GP or Police Scotland will be contacted. Leaflets and wallet-sized cards, along with other promotional material, are distributed to every officer and staff member to raise awareness of how to access the service and to ensure that they (and their families) have easy access to the number whenever it is needed. At Managing Attendance courses managers are told about the EAP resource.

26.21 Monthly management information from the EAP identifies any recorded bullying and harassment; if that shows a trend then an investigation can be triggered to find out how extensive it is in that department. It can also trigger the distribution to managers, officers and staff of information about preventing and dealing with bullying.

26.22 A new EAP contract began in 2019 and usage of the service saw a significant increase to 10%[266]. The EAP can be used for domestic issues such as legal or childcare advice or for issues as serious as coping with the effects of adverse childhood experiences on an individual's work. In the most serious cases the EAP counsellor would point the individual back to their GP and also provide them with a list of other specialist support organisations.

26.23 Police Scotland have about 200 wellbeing champions across the service, all of whom are trained in mental health first aid; they receive two days of mental health training and a half day's training on the other wellbeing services that are available. Anyone who wants to speak to someone in confidence can contact any of the wellbeing champions as there is no requirement to contact a champion based in the same division or location. All approaches are treated confidentially by the champions.

26.24 As I noted in the preliminary report, individuals are often put in pressurised situations where they may be dealing on a daily basis with crime, violence, vulnerable people, victims, deaths or the bereaved. In the course of their duties police officers and some support staff will experience trauma and may suffer from the vicarious effects of others' trauma.

26.25 Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority have a Trauma Risk Management (TRiM) policy[267]. TRiM is available if an officer or member of staff has had to deal with work‑related trauma. The TRiM process is voluntary and starts with a wellbeing check by managers to provide information and determine who might need a TRiM intervention. Officers and staff generally have access to TRiM 72 hours after an incident but individuals can self-refer. The service is made up of a group of around 180 police office volunteers who act as TRiM assessors who receive yearly assessor training. The individual can talk to the assessor about the event and how they are feeling. They are assessed to see if they need the professional support available under the EAP. TRiM debriefs can be carried out with a group of officers for welfare and therapeutic reasons.

26.26 Police Scotland also provide cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for people identified as having symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). An officer can initially receive six sessions but more can be prescribed if necessary. Each case will be allocated a reference number in order to anonymise it.

26.27 The system of annual face‑to‑face resilience assessment with a counsellor was replaced with online resilience screening rolled out to every officer and staff member of Police Scotland. The wellbeing team regard this as a very effective way to catch the subtle changes that might happen in an individual and an exercise that should be repeated online. Previously around 1,200 people qualified for the face‑to‑face assessment but the take‑up was only around 25%.

26.28 Trauma resilience training is provided for high‑risk areas such as the Public Protection Unit and armed policing. In Police Scotland the posts which are most exposed to harrowing incidents do not have a set period of tenure. In my 2015 report on The Investigation and Prosecution of Rape in London[268] I made the point that working in an isolated environment on distressing cases could have a negative impact on individuals and I suggested that there might be a 'shelf life' for that type of work. It is understandable that officers may be committed to a certain area of policing, but if this is the case, appropriate and regular occupational health supervision must be made available to them.

26.29 Lifelines Scotland[269] was set up in 2016 to support the wellbeing of Scotland's volunteer responder community. The project supports the health and wellbeing of all emergency responders, and provides information about how to stay well, beat stress and boost resilience for them, their families and their friends. It is now working with Police Scotland, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and the Scottish Ambulance Service to develop resources and training courses for their staff. The Scottish Government has told the Review that it is committed to extending the Lifelines Scotland wellbeing programme to blue‑light responders.

The Police Treatment Centres

26.30 In addition to the support provided by Police Scotland, support is also available from the voluntary sector. The Police Treatment Centres[270] is a registered charity which provides treatment and support, including intensive, police-specific physiotherapy and rehabilitation for injured and ill police officers and retired officers. The centres are funded almost entirely by donations from serving officers and members of the public. They help officers return to duty more quickly than if they were solely reliant on the National Health Service. Serving and retired officers can attend one of the two treatment centres at Auchterarder or Harrogate.

Evidence from sergeants focus group

26.31 The Review held a focus group with a cross‑section of sergeants which provided valuable evidence and insight from men and women serving in this crucial rank. One of the issues discussed was welfare provision and support for officers. One participant described the sergeant rank as the conduit for an increasing administrative workload. The sergeants told the Review that they have to deal with resourcing, with operational matters and with filling out crime files; these responsibilities together with many other matters and outside influences meant that staffing and welfare issues might be missed. On a shift, 50% of the officers whom sergeants are looking after could be probationers. I comment on the issue of supervisory ratios within Police Scotland and the pivotal management role of the sergeant in the Police Scotland chapter at page 81.

26.32 The sergeants explained to the Review that line manager support for officers could be an issue in some remote areas where there could be no opportunity for having regular face‑to‑face contact with frontline constables. In one island town where there should be five sergeants there were only two in post and three unfilled posts. The lack of supervision in remote areas was a contributing factor to a lot of complaints reaching Professional Standards Department. It was also noted that experienced constables may not want to move to remote locations so probationers are posted there instead, and probationers, on the whole, would need more support.

26.33 The sergeants made a number of valid points to the Review and provided evidence of geographical inconsistency of approach. They purported that if a police officer is doing their job well they are more likely to get complaints than someone who avoids any conflict.

26.34 The Review was told that the lack of feedback on the course of complaints can be damaging to officers through the uncertainty about what is happening and indicated that updates are quite poor. In some divisions officers only know about the complaints that are upheld. The practice is different in G Division (Glasgow) where an officer finds out about the results of all complaints; the line manager is informed at the same time as the officer, who may be called in for a conversation.

26.35 Sergeants can initiate a welfare action if necessary. The sergeants' consensus was that interventions can be supportive, that wellbeing champions' confidential support is beneficial and that the Scottish Police Federation representatives also provide good support.

Evidence from the Scottish Police Federation representatives focus group

26.36 The Review held a focus group with Scottish Police Federation representatives to hear at first hand about their extensive experience of and involvement in complaints and conduct matters. One representative's view was that for the average police officer the complaints process could be very frustrating because subject officers did not get very much information as the process continued and the process could have a huge impact on their career. Subject officers were investigated by people who are used to investigating crime and the approach varied according to the region of Scotland in which the investigation took place. One representative characterised PSD's initial approach to conduct as tending to assume the worst and that an allegation should be treated in the most serious category, and contrasted that with practice in the rest of the working world where most organisations take the opposite, bottom‑up approach.

26.37 One representative suggested that for low‑level complaints the responsibility for dealing with those matters and related complaints should properly lie with the shift sergeant as the person who runs the shift and who should deal with minor HR‑type matters. It was noted that in one city on a particular shift one sergeant could be managing up to 18 constables who were responsible to him or her but based at eight police stations across the city. This ratio and the scale of responsibilities made it very difficult for that line manager to deal with all the management, quality of service and welfare issues that could arise.

26.38 One participant suggested that lots of cases going down a misconduct route originated in human error or mistakes that might have been caused by a lack of support or officers being overstretched. Overstretch was occurring across the board and, in many instances, warnings from frontline police officers to management about resources had not been acted upon.

26.39 Another representative believed that there were many young officers who were very stressed in the workplace and that this led to complaints. They were dealing constantly with calls and received little respite. Shift patterns meant that they were now working ten-hour days in a pattern of four days on and three days off. The representative suggested there had been a culture change in the service and now some officers go off duty, switch off entirely from work and do not consider themselves as being police officers after they have gone home.

26.40 Another representative had identified an issue about how line managers speak to their officers. Line managers did not always think about whether there were any underlying issues affecting officers' behaviour. Sometimes the public expected police officers to be spoken to after a complaint, but not to be punished or even sacked.

26.41 According to one participant, being referred to the occupational health service was quite a formal step; officers could not self-refer. There were few HR advisers in divisions, and they had heavy workloads.

26.42 The view of one representative was that although the Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) counsellors were proficient in areas such as bereavement, debt and marital issues, they could not give specific advice in relation to policing. Some counselling or support should be mandatory for people who were in sensitive and very intense posts, for example officers dealing with child pornography or rape cases. One representative felt that the police service was only paying lip-service to welfare and psychological support; another suggested that consultations were limited to six per officer and that Police Scotland did not accept that people might need more consultations than that.

26.43 The group expressed a real concern about anonymous complaints and their potential impact on the private lives of officers and their families. One representative described many police officers as being in fear of complaints and the anxiety that it created when a complaint was made against them.

Evidence from the SEMPER Scotland[271]members focus group

26.44 One SEMPER member told the Review that mental health post-incident procedures are "stuck in the dark ages" with nothing formal in place; Police Scotland "did not value them much". In their experience there was only a fleeting mental health check: "Are you alright?", while the machismo environment prevents people saying that they are not OK. Studies suggest that the drip effect means officers could suffer Post‑Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) further down the line and that early mental health checks were advisable in order to avoid this.

Evidence from the Scottish LGBTI[272] Police Association

26.45 The Review also met with representatives and members of the Scottish LGBTI Police Association. One of the main issues for them was that there should be a time limit on concluding complaint investigations. We were also told of one complaint that went on for two years to be investigated before the subject officer was told that there was nothing in it.

26.46 One participant commented that because of inspectors' workloads it was very difficult for them to find time to deal with complaints and provide support to constables. There was no training on welfare, and officers received diversity training only once in their career in the police.

Evidence from the Scottish Women's Development Forum[273]

26.47 The Review met with the Scottish Women's Development Forum which represents both police officers and staff. They believed that welfare support was particularly poor in Police Scotland; any monitoring of an officer's behaviour changes and the response to that behaviour was dependent on what kind of line manager you had. One representative said that the organisation was getting a bit better at encouraging people to speak about their welfare issues, but they felt the reality was that if you say you are stressed you might receive a "red" mark against you. The benefits of having wellbeing champions were great, but it was also observed that welfare often gets missed especially if you are not "one of the lads"; the front line can be "quite cliquey".

26.48 One representative said that inspectors' workloads were massive and that sergeants were under enormous pressure. Further, all calls demand sergeants' time and they had to balance risks; time for staff was difficult to find. A representative also told the Review that where officers who are the subject a complaint are moved to another post or, as they referred to the process, "cupboarded"[274], this can have an impact on their mental health. One participant highlighted a lack of transparency in investigations which added to the stress for all those involved. We were told that some people experience severe mental health issues and in consequence leave the organisation. We were told that two women had left Police Scotland because they felt they had been treated poorly as subject officers.

Summary of evidence on welfare and support

26.49 As I said in the preliminary report, there has been some disparity in the evidence gathered on this subject. On the one hand evidence of what is on offer in terms of welfare provision and other support mechanisms suggests provision is adequate; and on the other hand, officers describe difficulties in accessing what is available for any meaningful length of time. The evidence would suggest that although the services available through the EAP, the Occupational Health Service, through wellbeing champions and TrIM Assessors and Co-ordinators appear to be appropriate for officers and staff, the corporate resources to support these services seem disproportionately small; a wellbeing team of two to support the whole of Police Scotland appears astonishingly under-resourced. I understand the constraints of budget, and that it is currently stretched, however the complex and often harrowing nature of policing means that the appropriate support on mental health issues should be prioritised, not least because of its preventative benefits.

26.50 The evidence gathered throughout the Review suggests a lack of recognition that some behaviours may be attributable to the environment in which police officers operate and a need for underlying causes of those behaviours to be identified and addressed at the earliest opportunity before they manifest themselves in performance or conduct issues.

26.51 The responses to the Call for Evidence and the evidence from the focus groups and diversity staff associations suggest that support for officers who have been the subject of a complaint is inadequate. Lack of information and delays can lead to stress and anxiety that can and does have a detrimental effect on officers' family life. There needs to be frequent and clear communication regarding the progress of the complaint against subject officers.

26.52 Any restricted duties or transfers imposed for the duration of an investigation should take into account, where appropriate, the individual's family circumstances, and subject officers or staff should be offered the opportunity to access appropriate support services provided by Police Scotland.

26.53 Recommendation: Any restricted duties or transfers imposed for the duration of an investigation should take into account, where appropriate, the individual's family circumstances, and subject officers or staff should be offered the opportunity to access appropriate support services provided by Police Scotland.


Email: ian.kernohan@gov.scot

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