06 January 2017

New police misconduct procedures create opportunities for research

The Government recently introduced integrity reforms to address issues in the misconduct system. Ray Marley, Policing Standards Manager from the College of Policing discusses the new system and possible areas for research.

"The police disciplinary system is complex. It has developed organically rather than been structured to fit its purpose. It lacks transparency for the public, it is bureaucratic and it lacks independence. "

(Theresa May, while Home Secretary, 22/7/14)

The police misconduct (or disciplinary) system is used when an officer is alleged to have breached the standards of professional behaviour. As such, it applies to all police officers and special constables (though not members of police staff or PCSOs). Depending on the seriousness of the allegation, the case will be considered at either a misconduct meeting (for less serious matters) or a gross misconduct hearing where dismissal is a potential outcome.  For example, misconduct could be a failure to properly investigate a minor offence and gross misconduct could include an officer who develops a sexual relationship with a vulnerable person.

Successive governments have made changes to the system in order to introduce greater independence and transparency.  However, measures implemented by Theresa May, while Home Secretary, have fundamentally altered the process at gross misconduct hearings.  Prior to May 2015 gross misconduct hearings of police officers took place in private, chaired by a chief police officer, a police superintendent and a lay member. The government reforms now ensure that gross misconduct hearings are held in public and are chaired by an independent lawyer with a police superintendent and a lay member. These changes were intended to make hearings more transparent and independent, ensuring that the public could have confidence in the proceedings.  Often members of the public are alerted about misconduct procedures via police force websites as details must be published.  Only gross misconduct hearings are now heard in public, misconduct meetings continue to be chaired by a senior police officer in private. 

Making gross misconduct hearings public effectively creates a rich new source of data for police- related research.  Researchers are now welcome to sit in on hearings and will be in a position to conduct far more insightful and timely case study research involving gross misconduct than previously possible. This new opportunity is relevant to a broad range of research themes and a few examples are described below. 

There would be great value in comparing the new approach to gross misconduct hearings with the old private style and examining the benefits and drawbacks of each. There has been little academic research on the effectiveness of the police misconduct system and studies of this type could help to fill an important evidence gap. As part of this, researchers could seek to examine whether and how the hearing outcomes differ with the two approaches and potential reasons any differences seen. 

Alternatively, researchers may not have gross misconduct hearings as the focus of their research - but could use hearings as an additional source of evidence. For example, if they are exploring the police response to different crime types and what to examine possible mishandling of such cases. Another example could be if they are interested in using data from the hearings to help examine an aspect of police organisational culture – such as around the handling of risk, learning lessons and the prevalence or otherwise of a so called "blame culture". 

Craig Guildford, National Police Chiefs' Council Lead for Complaints and Misconduct welcomes the latest reforms.

"The vast majority of officers conduct themselves with integrity and act in the public interest, but in those cases where conduct falls below expected standards it's imperative for public confidence that the system for holding individuals to account is transparent, fair and effective. The misconduct system has developed over many years and although recent changes are very welcome we need to understand to what extent they have increased police accountability and made the process fairer and more transparent."

The College of Policing runs regular research surgeries, where members can receive advice on their police-related research proposals. Booking information for research surgeries is available with some information about the surgeries and other ways that we can help.

If you are interested in getting more specific advice in relation to using gross misconduct hearings as a source of data for your research project, please contact Ray.Marley@college.pnn.police.uk