Police complaints procedures ‘ineffective and inefficient’

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Complaint handling procedures at Scotland’s police oversight body are “neither effective nor efficient”, according to an audit report.

The Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (PIRC) found a number of deficiencies within the Scottish Police Authority’s (SPA) system for dealing with complaints about senior police officers, and its own staff and board members.

Issues identified included a lack of clarity and transparency around decisions, a lack of evidence of sufficient inquiries to look into complaints or establish details of misconduct allegations, and “excessive” timescales for concluding complaints and preliminary misconduct assessments.

The audit, conducted in July, examined the 48 complaints – including 30 relating to senior police officers – received, progressed and concluded by the SPA between April 2015 and March 2017 which its complaints department assessed as falling within its remit.

It also examined a sample of 20% of complaints or inquiries which the SPA assessed as falling outwith its remit.

It considered a number of areas around complaint handling, including how the SPA assessed which complaints fell within its remit and how it determined whether they should be dealt with as complaints or allegations of misconduct.

The audit found that the SPA received 14 complaints about senior officers during the period, which should have been progressed as potential misconduct allegations.

However it noted that only seven of these cases were referred to the SPA’s Complaints and Conduct Committee for assessment and that of those seven, the committee assessed that only one, if proved, would amount to misconduct or gross misconduct, resulting in its referral to the PIRC for investigation.

The audit also scrutinised how long it took the SPA to deal with complaints and considered the level of training provided to the complaints department.

Commissioner Kate Frame said: “The audit has highlighted a number of deficiencies within the SPA’s current complaint handling practices.

“Decisions on complaints were made which lacked clarity and transparency and in many cases there was insufficient explanation to demonstrate how the decision was reached.

“The average time taken by the SPA to conclude complaints and preliminary misconduct assessments was excessive and disproportionate, as was the emphasis placed on members of the public by the SPA to produce evidence in support of their complaint.”

The PIRC has made a series of recommendations to the SPA as a result of the audit, including amending its internal guidance and providing greater clarity for staff on how complaints should be assessed and handled.

The organisation should also put in place guidance on how complaints which it assesses to be “whistleblowing” should be progressed, the PIRC said.

Susan Deacon, chair of the SPA, said: “This latest PIRC report raises a number of important areas for the SPA’s attention, some of which have already been dealt with or are in progress.

“Going forward, I believe it is essential that the SPA work together with other organisations with a role and interest in complaint handling, to ensure that our systems and practices are robust and work effectively to maintain public confidence and trust in policing.”

The report follows a turbulent period for the oversight body, with Audit Scotland recently highlighting “unacceptable” examples of poor governance and use of public money at the organisation.

Alex Cole-Hamilton Lib Dem MSP said: “It is crucial that these recommendations are used to inform an overhaul of SPA complaint handling. For too long whistleblowers have warned of a ‘culture of secrecy’.

“It will now be up to the new head of the SPA to ensure that these recommendations are taken on board and not swept under the carpet.”

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