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Police forces in England and Wales logged a record number of complaint allegations last year, reaching a new high of 134,952, the equivalent to one complaint for every two serving officers.
Some of the reports covered serious breaches, including officers abusing their position of power for sex, and amounts to a 24% rise on the figure recorded two years previously.
Byline Times analysis also suggests that the amount of time taken to investigate serious accusations of misconduct has tripled in recent years.
The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), which handles independent investigations of serious police misconduct, saw its average time to “finalise” an investigation rise from 130 working days in 2020-2021 to an expected 312 working days for 2023-2024.
Those figures include time spent investigating by police forces themselves before a case is referred to the IOPC, meaning the delays could be due to failures at local police forces rather than the IOPC itself.
Given the limited number of working days in a year, that IOPC this year will take almost a year and a quarter in real-time to complete.
Campaigners said the findings demonstrated that the police complaints system was “not fit for purpose and needs a substantial overhaul”.
Those 134,952 allegations in 2022-2023 amounted to 547 per 1,000 serving officers – and related to 81,142 complaints (each complaint can contain multiple allegations). In 2020-2021 the figure was just 109,151, rising the a year later to 120,694.
Nearly 35,000 of the allegations logged nationwide last year were against officers serving in the Metropolitan Police.
The force has been the focus of growing criticism of UK policing after a string of criminal officers in its ranks were exposed, including serial rapist David Carrick, and Wayne Couzens, who used his police ID and handcuffs during the kidnap and murder 33-year-old Sarah Everard in 2021.
A damning report from Lady Louise Casey in March found the force to be institutionally racist, misogynist, homophobic and corrupt, and her report warned that “public consent is broken” with the force.
One of the most criticised units in the report was MO19 – the force’s elite specialist firearms command – which the report described as having a “deeply troubling, toxic culture”.
Every female staffer the review spoke to that had left the team since 2019 reported having been directly impacted by the sexist and misogynistic culture in the unit.
Officers in the unit also spent excessive amount of money on “unnecessary, high-end equipment”, including night vision goggles that are unusable in London’s street-lit environment.
Last month, scores of officers at the unit refused to conduct patrols after a colleague was charged last week with murder for shooting dead unarmed Chris Kaba in south London in September 2022.
“The IOPC celebrates that “more complaints are being dealt with more quickly”, but this simply means that misconduct is routinely being dealt with informally and officers are not being subjected to the scrutiny of a thorough investigation,” said Rebecca Dooley, legal and advocacy officer at policing reform group Stop Watch.
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“Where there are investigations, they are subject to extraordinary delays and very rarely result in action against officers.”
“The police complaints system is the only way for the public to hold officers to account, but it is clear that it is not fit for purpose and needs a substantial overhaul for public confidence to be restored”, they said.
They went on to highlight that just 113 complaints ever led to misconduct proceedings against officers last year, and warned that countless more complaints are never reported as victims “do not trust that the complaints system will result in accountability for bad policing”.
Holly Bird, research and policy officer at the charity, added that the long waits to finish IOPC investigations was “unacceptable”, explaining that the “mental and emotional impact of this on those who have made complaints cannot be overstated”.
“A Home Office spokesperson told Byline Times: “The public put their trust in the police and expect them to carry out their duties to the highest professional standards. The Government changed the definition of a police complaint in 2020 to ensure that dissatisfaction and misconduct can be raised. It remains essential that they are handled reasonably and proportionately across policing. The vast majority of complaints about the police are about the delivery of duties and service and do not concern misconduct.”
The change in methodology in 2020 affected all of the data analysed, meaning the rise between 2020-2021 and 2022-2023 was not due to the years using different methodologies. However, police forces have still characterised the figures and new methodology as “experimental”.”
The IOPC told Byline Times: “Our annual police complaints statistics, published this week, show there was an 8% rise in complaints recorded by forces in England and Wales. We make clear that these figures, which include allegations, remain experimental following a significant change in the complaints system in 2020. Comparisons with previous years therefore need to be treated with caution. The new complaints system has simplified the process to make a complaint, making it more accessible and widening the definition of a complaint to ‘any expression of dissatisfaction’. It was consequently anticipated that there would be an increase in allegations made. The most commonly recorded complaint type relates to police service delivery such as a lack of updates or delays in responses, rather than the more serious concerns around police misconduct.
“The length of time to finalise allegations figures in quarterly bulletins relate to complaint cases only and do not accurately reflect the IOPC’s involvement. These figures reflect the timescale from when a complaint was actually received by a force up to when the complainant is advised of the outcome. For example, it can be weeks or months before a force refers a matter to the IOPC. We also only investigate the most serious and sensitive cases referred to us, which by their nature can be more complex. We currently complete just under 90% of our core independent investigations overall within 12 months which include complaints, conduct, and death or serious injury matters. We complete nearly 40% within six months. Since becoming the IOPC in 2018 we have improved the timeliness of our independent investigations.”