Police watchdog criticised by top lawyer for 'dragging its feet'

21 September 2016


Police are being put under appalling pressure and being driven to quit the job over lengthy investigations by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC).

A top lawyer took aim at IPPC chief Dame Anne Owers in front of more than one hundred police custody officers and other stakeholders at the National Custody Seminar and accused her organisation of dragging its feet.

Ian Kelcey demanded to know how new structural changes to the IPCC would improve the situation for custody personnel and claimed it was like ‘drawing hen’s teeth’ to get any information about cases.

Mr Kelcey, who has represented Police Federation members in the past, said: “Some of the delays have been unconscionable. Very often, death in custody cases can take 18 months before you even get a report. In other cases, people have been charged, gone to court, been tried and convicted in that time. But if you ask your staff to provide information about the progress of these cases, it’s actually harder than drawing hen’s teeth.

“Officers are thinking ‘do I really want to continue in this job?' I think it’s appalling to potentially lose people with that level of experience. It’s appalling for them and their families. Do you really think that the changes will improve the functionality of your organisation?”

IPPC chair Dame Anne suggested the length of investigations could be attributed to ‘delays in evidence gathering’, other agencies such as the Crown Prosecution Service and forces’ Professional Standards Directorates, but conceded that ‘new staff took longer than it should’ to carry out investigations, and their organisational structure and misconduct backlogs were clogging up progress.

She admitted: “We have got to get investigations more streamlined; we have got to improve, but we are reliant on other people as well – there are also issues with the length of time it takes for officers to provide their own accounts.”

Dame Anne was speaking to the Police Federation of England and Wales’ (PFEW) annual National Custody Seminar where a recurring theme over the past two days has been the difficulties posed by rising numbers of detainees with mental health problems.

So-called ‘season ticket-holders’ routinely end up in police cells whereas really they need to be detained in alternative more appropriate places of safety commissioned by health and social care providers.

Speaking on the ‘significant rise in suicides after custody', often featuring detainees with known alcohol, drug and mental health issues, Dame Anne told the audience: “You are not mental health professionals, nor should you pretend to be, but the alternative support should be available to you when you need it.

“The role you fulfill is not often given the status and recognition it deserves, but it is crucial. It’s about protecting and preserving life.”

The seminar, at the Warwick Hilton Hotel, was attended by custody sergeants and officers from across England and Wales and saw a raft of interesting presentations across a diverse range of topics affecting custody officers.

Nick Ephgrave, the National Police Chief's Council (NPCC) Custody lead spoke on Tuesday, and his talks on mental health set the tone on the first day, where Michael Brown from the College of Policing (CoP) also spoke at length on those issues and Juliet Lyon, chair of the Independent Advisory Panel, spoke on deaths in custody.

Mark Hill from the Home Office Police Estates Group also spoke on the layout of custody cells and how they can be used to prevent self-harm in custody, while Professor Michael Zander provided an update on PACE (Police and Criminal Evidence Act) and bail changes in the forthcoming Policing and Crime Bill.

Wednesday began with a fascinating talk from the Law Society’s Richard Atkinson which covered many issues both sides of the legal divide are dealing with, while Susan Freeburn from Slater & Gordon talked in detail about intimate searches.

Andy Ward, PFEW Deputy General Secretary and Custody Lead, paid tribute to the hard work of custody staff across the country. He said: “These are dedicated custody professionals who are working tirelessly in an ever more challenging climate of austerity, trying to keep detainees safe and looking out for their best interests. They perform a pivotal role in the policing service.”

Darren Harris, the chair of PFEW’s Custody Forum reflected on another successful seminar, adding: “It’s been a brilliant two days. There was a great input from all the speakers and interaction from the delegates, as well as a fantastic exhibition as well.”