In June 2018 Michael Matheson MSP, the then Cabinet Secretary for Justice, and the Lord Advocate, James Wolffe QC, invited me to conduct an independent review on complaints against the police in Scotland. The Review commenced in September 2018. Six years have passed since the creation of radical, new policing structures for Scotland. This is an appropriate juncture to review the effectiveness of the new systems for dealing with complaints against the police in Scotland, how well such complaints are investigated and the processes reviewed. This review also provides a significant opportunity to contribute to work on matters of profound public interest in a key area of human rights.
My mandate from the Ministers is to make recommendations that will help to strengthen public confidence in policing in Scotland. This first report makes recommendations that are preliminary. It will be followed next year by a wide‑ranging report seeking to ensure that the future legislation, regulations, guidance and practice are fit for purpose. It will also examine in detail the structures of the individual organisations charged with dealing with complaints against the police. Despite the very different responsibilities and natural tensions between the four separate organisations involved in the process, it is crucial that relationships are professional, respectful, and focused on continuous improvement of policing in Scotland and securing the rights of those they serve.
In 2017 I was asked by the then Home Secretary to carry out a review of deaths in police custody in England and Wales. In my report of that Review I observed that we ask a lot of those who police us in the 21st century. The need to interact and sometimes intervene in the lives and freedom of members of the public is a daily occurrence for the police. Such duties involve the power to arrest or intervene where criminal conduct is suspected or where the welfare or life of that individual or others is at serious risk, as well as in many other emergency settings. The powers that flow from those duties are immense in their potential impact on citizens and are regulated by a complex framework of laws and regulations to prevent abuse or negligence in the exercise of those powers.
How those powers are exercised is also governed by the competence and integrity of the individual police officer as well as the wider police force within which he or she serves. In addition to law, training and guidance on how officers should approach encounters that may lead to detention, the community relies on the professionalism, wisdom, ethics and courage of police officers to approach incidents which may result in harm to the officers or others. These are often situations from which most in the community would wish to remove themselves immediately for their own personal safety. Where death or serious injury occurs for those detained by the police and, in other cases, where it is alleged the detention is unlawful, human rights considerations come into play and the state is obliged to carry out effective, timeous and independent investigations into those allegations. In those that result in death, the investigation must also be held in public and allow effective participation in the process by the next of kin of the deceased.
There is however a much wider set of complaints against the police which may involve other types of allegations of criminality. Serious complaints should also be the subject of independent investigation and consideration by a prosecution service independent of the police, others should be drawn to the attention of the prosecutor as soon as possible to allow the prosecutor to determine who should carry out the investigation. Further, members of the public who interact with the police may have complaints about the conduct or efficiency of officers or the quality of service they have received from the police service as an organisation. These matters represent the vast bulk of complaints and are principally directed at the quality of the service provided including rudeness, delay or ineffectiveness. These complaints are identified for a process which aims to be user friendly and capable of as swift and proportionate a response as possible by the police organisation itself, subject to independent supervision, audit and checks.
It can be seen therefore that the notion of a complaint against the police covers a very wide range of events, behaviours and conduct that can be very distinct from each other in character. There may also be occasions however where a combination of different categories of complaint can arise from any given situation. Similarly, the character of the complaint is not always apparent to those first to receive the intimation and further information needs to be sought or investigation undertaken before decisions are made about the route the complaint should take.
This variation in the nature of, and appropriate response to complaints, presents significant challenges for the police and appropriate agencies charged with supervising or investigating such matters; more so for any member of the public wishing to make a complaint. Any understanding of the operation of the different types of complaint and the complex routes for response flowing from the complaint has been described in another, similar context as displaying "the complexity of a wiring system from the star ship Enterprise" This is certainly also the case in Scotland and it was put to this Review in evidence that "the current arrangements for handling complaints about the police are overly complex, lack clarity and can be open to a range of different interpretations".
The vast bulk of complaints should properly be investigated by the police service itself but it is critical that those processes are clear, transparent and trusted. Independent supervision and audit is also critical. In those cases rightly requiring independent investigation the police must also provide the fullest co‑operation and assistance to allow timely and effective action. The effectiveness of the relations among and between each of the four organisations charged with these responsibilities in Scotland is also critical to success of the process. While the interaction of these organisations requires a degree of autonomy, and in respect of the COPFS and PIRC, independence from the police, independence does not equate to isolation, which undermines the independence of an organisation. In order for the independence of organisations to be maintained and enhanced, and for checks and balances to be effective, there must be regular and meaningful interaction at all levels of these agencies. There must also be mutual respect and an atmosphere of genuine co‑operation.
This preliminary report identifies and discusses a number of issues about these central matters for immediate consideration and others about which further comment is invited before the full report next year.
21 June 2019