Investigations into deaths in police custody should be completed within a year, says a leading police complaints investigator.
Dame Elish Angiolini provided evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s justice committee on Monday morning, following the publication of her in-depth, 500 page independent review of complaints handling, investigations and misconduct issues in relation to policing in Scotland earlier this month.
Dame Elish, a QC, pointed out work had been done following the release of her interim report in 2019, but noted the complaints process had been as complicated as the “wiring system of the Starship Enterprise” — the fictional light-speed ship from the TV show Star Trek.
Death in custody ‘most serious’ investigation
As part of her investigation, Dame Elish noted the time taken to investigate deaths in custody took too long, to the detriment of the families of those who died and the officers involved.
Although no reference was made to any particular case during Monday’s evidence session, her sentiments would apply to the investigation into the death of Kirkcaldy father Sheku Bayoh in 2015.
An independent inquiry into Mr Bayoh’s death is under way with the hearing stage to begin in 2021. The inquiry is expected to last several years.
The lawyer representing Mr Bayoh’s family, Aamer Anwar, said previously the findings of the independent review had uncovered a police complaints system not fit for purpose in a modern and democratic Scotland.
Asked about the process of investigation into deaths in custody, Dame Angiolini said the investigation should be able to be conducted within a year.
She said: “If you are in a cell or in custody you immediately have all sorts of rights which are accessible to you — access to a solicitor etc.
“If you die (in custody) your family do not have instant right to a solicitor. So it is a very important aspect as well, the family need access to the same type of legal advice as the person would have in custody, both immediate and expert.
Timeline surrounding Mr Bayoh’s death
“Death in custody invokes article two of the European Convention of Human Rights, it is one of the most serious and solemn provisions there is in the convention rights.
“Where that happens, it creates huge stress, not just for the next of kin but also the officers involved.
“Their lives are suspended, if these matters go on for years then they cannot work, they often become ill and it is imperative these cases are dealt with.
“When I say it should be treated like a homicide, I am not talking about 110 days, I am talking about a year…which is sufficient time for investigations.
“We manage to get complex murder and culpable homicide cases into court in that period and these cases require that.
“Because they are the most serious cases.”
As complicated as wiring in ‘Starship Enterprise’
Dame Elish noted the complex process of submitting complaints about officer conduct is not as visible to the public as it should be.
She said: “Originally, it has been like the wiring system of the Starship Enterprise, if you were a member of the public trying to navigate it.
“I think it is necessarily complex because there are so many rights involved.
“There is a real determination now to make sure it is as simple as possible.
“For instance, the cap D division of the procurator fiscal service can deal with complaints of criminality directly — the public do not need to go near the police.
“That is one of the standing rights the public have had for years, but it is not known.
“It is about making that notorious. Making sure that light is no longer under a bushel and making people realise there is a de facto, independent system for the most serious allegations.”
When asked if she supported the idea of an “action tracker”, she added: “Yes, it sounds like an excellent idea.
“It really is for the government to determine which they give priority to.
“I am realistic the government and parliament have priorities which might overtake here. They are significant in the devolved context so Scotland has a system the community and officers can rely on which is trusted.”
Scottish Conservatives call for reform
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said: “Dame Elish’s review is damning and lays bare a police complaints process that is not fit for purpose and which if left unchanged, risks damaging public confidence in policing.
“The SNP government seemed intent on sticking Dame Elish’s report in a drawer and forgetting about it, which is why the Scottish Conservatives called the parliamentary debate.
“We were motivated to do so after hearing appalling accounts of injustice from across Scotland.
“Some of the experiences that were shared with us are shocking. Many of them saw their careers destroyed, suffered physical and mental ill health or faced life-changing financial loss.
“A common theme is how an initial mistake or wrongdoing which could easily have been fixed was instead compounded by the broken system.
“Dame Elish is clear that significant reform is vital and we’re determined to build a robust, transparent, efficient and fair complaints process fit for a modern Scottish justice system.
“This is not only about protecting the public, but also ensuring the thousands of police officers who keep our communities safe can have confidence in being treated fairly.”
Committee deputy convenor Margaret Mitchell, the Scottish Conservative communities safety spokeswoman, said: “I pay tribute to Dame Elish for her insightful and comprehensive review which contains vitally important recommendations.
“This is a powerful submission, from those who have suffered injustice. Their experiences are a stark reminder of the human cost of the broken police complaints system, which is desperately in need of reform.
“It would be totally unacceptable for the SNP government to stall taking the necessary legislative action.
“The Scottish Conservatives consider it a priority to protect the public and police officers, which is why we are calling for action from the SNP now without further delaying tactics.”
The Scottish Government has been approached for comment.