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Review calls for ‘significant improvements’ to police complaints handling in Scotland

Police - Image credit: Ninian Reid via Flickr

Review calls for ‘significant improvements’ to police complaints handling in Scotland

A review looking into the handling of complaints against the police in Scotland has called for “wide-ranging and significant improvements” to the system and the culture of Police Scotland.

It also raises serious concerns about racism and discrimination within the force and calls for a separate, broader review to look into equality issues.

Led by former lord advocate Dame Elish Angiolini, the review sets out 81 recommendations for improvements to complaints handling procedures.

These include giving more powers to the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (PIRC) and removing responsibility for the initial assessment of complaints against senior officers from the Scottish Police Authority.

The review found the current complaints system was “complex” and evidence from the public suggested it was perceived by some as designed to discourage people from complaining.

Complainers said investigations often appeared to lack independence, while police were described as “defensive” or process driven and there were issues around delays and a lack of communication.

Officers, meanwhile, told the review that they often felt they were considered “guilty until proven innocent”.

They also complained of a lack of information and transparency about the fact they were the subject of a complaint and what the complaint was and about a “lack of welfare or support”.

Ones of the report’s recommendations is that police look at less formal options for dealing with issues before getting into statutory procedures, suggesting some complaints result in misconduct cases when they could have been handled more informally as a performance review by the officer’s manager.

The review also found widespread racism within Police Scotland, as well as discrimination against female and LGBTI officers.

Angiolini said she was “deeply concerned” to hear of the experiences of black, Asian and minority ethnic officers, which she called a “chastening reminder” that attitudes had not changed as much as they should have since the Macpherson report of 1999.

A focus group told the review that ethnic minority officers were leaving the force, some within three to five years, because of the culture of the police and the way they were treated.

Evidence to the review suggested that some officers and staff experience “discriminatory conduct, attitudes, behaviours and micro-aggressions, both internally and externally, in the course of their duties” and that many incidents go unreported because officers don’t want to be seen as “playing the race card”.

Angiolini comments: “Worryingly, the review was told by officers that ‘a bit of name-calling was expected’.

“In the more serious misconduct cases often the racial element was ‘dropped’ by PSD [Professional Standards Department] on the basis that ‘it's just part of how we talk’ and because people don't want the extra work involved.

“The review was also told that frequently the organisational response was to move people rather than deal with the issue.”

She recommends that “in light of the very worrying evidence”, Police Scotland should be the subject of a “broader, fundamental review of equality matters” by an independent organisation.

The review also highlights that more needs to be done to enable minority communities to feel able to make complaints against the police, with concerns about their immigration status or behaviour of the police in countries they have come from likely to cause a lack of confidence and trust.

The Scottish Government has welcomed the review and said it will respond in due course.

Justice secretary Humza Yousaf said: “I am grateful to Dame Elish for this very significant piece of work. This is the first time such a review has been undertaken in Scotland.

“Scotland is well served by its police service, where every hour of every day officers and staff are responding to people who are in harm’s way or in crisis, working tirelessly to tackle crime and keep all of us safe.

“We have to recognise that things do at times go wrong, sometimes mistakenly or sometimes deliberately.

“It is in the interests of everyone in the police family, as well as the wider public, that we ensure the systems for investigating complaints or other issues of concern are as robust and transparent as possible.

“Those who raise legitimate concerns and those who are subject to investigations must always be treated in a fair and proportionate manner, helping to enhance accountability and strengthen public confidence in policing.

“The Lord Advocate and I will consider this detailed report and all of its recommendations with a range of key interests before responding formally to it.”

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said the report exposed “fundamental flaws” and while there was “no quick fix”, acting on the recommendations would be “vital”.

Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Liam McArthur said the review showed there was a “dearth of independence and accountability within policing in Scotland”, but it provided an “opportunity to make amends” and the Scottish Government must “respond positively and act quickly”.

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