Inquiry could trigger overhaul into police complaints

Mark Burns-Williams - West Yorkshire's Police and Crime Commissioner
Mark Burns-Williams - West Yorkshire's Police and Crime Commissioner

An independent inquiry into West Yorkshire Police’s handling of misconduct cases launched after a series of damaging scandals could trigger a radical overhaul of the way allegations against the force are dealt with.

But the review by London’s former top police adviser, Catherine Crawford, will not look at historical cases or re-investigate previous integrity issues in the county.

The document says Ms Crawford will “consider the respective legal responsibilities” of West Yorkshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) and Chief Constable in dealing with complaints and conduct matters as well as the role of the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC).

One possibility is that West Yorkshire could follow the example of North Yorkshire by passing the responsibility for complaints-handling to an independent unit led by the PCC to tackle the perception that police forces are “investigating themselves”.

It comes as a leading official at the IPCC warned that the force was “ripe for some improvements around how it deals with professional standards”.

Question marks have recently been raised against the integrity of the force’s policies and procedures, most recently involving what some critics claimed was a less than comprehensive inquiry into officers’ dealings with serial sex abuser Jimmy Savile.

Ms Crawford, the former chief executive of the Metropolitan Police Authority, said she looked forward to presenting her findings “as soon as I am satisfied I have completed a thorough, rigorous and objective review”.

She said: “The process of assembling the information and evidence which will inform my review of the conduct and complaints procedure used by West Yorkshire Police is now well in hand and this piece of work is continuing to move forward with purpose.”

The review will look at the way the handling of complaints are monitored by West Yorkshire’s PCC, Mark Burns-Williamson.

It will also examine the way in which the police and the PCC’s office deal with “vexatious” complaints and those where complainants exhaust all formal processes but are still dissatisfied.

The terms of reference document said recommendations for a “new approach” would be made, but added: “It should be carefully noted that this is not a review of historical/extant cases or a re-investigation of any complaints and conduct matters.”

The chief executive of policing advice group CoPaCC, Bernard Rix, said the review, which was announced in May, was “of significance well beyond West Yorkshire”.

He said: “Many PCCs are already taking a keen and public interest in how complaints against the police are handled. Catherine Crawford’s report may well prove to be a milestone in how the future relationship between police and the public is shaped across the country.”

Figures from the IPCC show that the watchdog dealt with more appeals about West Yorkshire Police’s handling of complaints than the three other forces in the region combined. In 2011/12, the last period where statistics are available, there were 819 complaints recorded against the force and 272 appeals about how complaints were dealt with. The IPCC upheld 42 per cent of completed appeals, higher than the average for forces nationwide.

Speaking to the Yorkshire Post, the new IPCC commissioner for Yorkshire said she was not surprised Ms Crawford “is doing some work in West Yorkshire”. Cindy Butts, who started work in December, said: “I personally got the sense that there is some room for improvement in Yorkshire, as there is in most places, everywhere can improve.

“I get the sense that West Yorkshire is ripe for some improvements around how it deals with professional standards.”

Ms Butts said she also wants to improve the way police complaints are dealt with at local level by forces’ professional standards department (PSD) teams.

North Yorkshire’s PCC, Julia Mulligan, has announced plans for her office to take over her force’s PSD to tackle the widely-held belief that the units are not sufficiently independent.

She has since called for an overhaul of the “mind-bogglingly complex and extremely slow” complaints system.