Posted: Monday 29th September 2014
A year ago, 8 residents from across Avon and Somerset gathered in a meeting room at police HQ. We did not know each other but we were all there having responded to a recruitment call by Sue Mountstevens, our Police and Crime Commissioner, and her staff team. Our role – to provide an independent citizen’s review of how Avon and Somerset police deal with complaints made against officers or police staff. We live in different parts of the area, some of us work and some are retired, we are different ages. But we all want transparency about how the police conduct their business
A year on, and now 10 in number, we have become a cohesive team and got to know each other. We are different but we all have particular strengths and interests. We all bring something to the discussions and make good, and importantly, challenging points to the police Professional Standards Department (to whom complaints come). Our Chair, Mark Viney, is a great leader – polite, precise and very sharp, and he has allowed us to have a firm voice.
So what do we actually do? We meet at least four times a year and ‘dip-sample’ recently completed complaints files. This mean we randomly allocate files to ourselves, and carefully read them through. We note how the complainant was treated (was it politely? Were their rights recognised? ) look at the quality of letters and emails to the public, (are they understandable?, do they give all the details?) and above all, was the complaint investigated fairly and was the complainant believed?
We take notes and write a short report on each file. During the morning we read about 5 or 6 files each, depending on how much information we find, and how straightforward or complex the case is.
Then, over lunch (thank you Sue and team), we report on our findings to the head of the Professional Standards Department, Superintendent Paul Richards. A member of Police and Crime Commissioner Sue Mountstevens’ staff team is with us to take notes and answer our questions. Over the year, our voice has become stronger. We are critical when needed, we praise good and full investigations and note good practice (i.e. really nice letters written to complainants, police who apologise spontaneously and don’t fudge), and, really importantly, we explain how we think the police can improve. Yes, a morning will have been hard work but it’s interesting and worthwhile work.
Our ideas on improvements are varied. We have worked with the police team to improve the language of the letters so that they can be understood by more people. We have pressed for police officers to recognise that complainants have a genuine grievance, even when it cannot be ‘proved’ that a police officer ‘did wrong’. And we challenge slow complaints investigations and query some where we think the outcome was plain wrong.
When Sue set up our panel, she was very clear that she no longer wanted the police "to mark their own homework". We now help with this marking and I think we are starting to make a difference. We have further to go to change the ‘culture’ of the police and get complaints dealt with in the way that we, as ordinary people, would like to see them investigated. But we have made a start and, as members of the first panel of its kind in the country, we are mostly pleased with our progress and feel proud to be part of this innovative way of opening up the police to public scrutiny.
Member of the Independent Residents Panel