Having discussed structure within the police force the question of accountability can be better explored. In the exercise of their duties the individual police officer is accountable to their superior, but they are also accountable to the law. They must both operate within the same laws as apply to the public and those rules specific to the police. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) is the primary legislation put in place to protect the public from abuse of police power. The act provides for the creation of Codes of Practice, which govern police behaviour.
The breach of a code is not an offence in itself, but can be the basis of a complaint from which disciplinary action can be taken. Additionally, a significant transgression may lead to the exclusion of evidence in any subsequent trial8 The codes cover all areas of police work, including arrests procedures, searching of property, recording of interview and those rules relating to the handling of evidence. However, despite these safeguards which are admirable in attempt to ensure minimal misconduct, they are not always successful.
In 1981, there were 1,542 substantiated complaints against police officers in England and Wales, and 847 in 1997-1998. Although the total of complaints increased, from 32,443 to 35,820, the number substantiated has fallen by nearly one half. When a complaint is made aggrieved citizens can complain to the force in question and there are certain practices in place to protect the citizen's interests9. Sir Robert Mark gave the creation of the police complaints board (PCB) in 1975 as reason for his resignation as Metropolitan police commissioner.
Ten years later the Police Complaints Authority (PCA) replaced the PCB, and was granted a supervisory role in the investigation of complaints and disciplinary powers10. While a supervisory external body seems a good idea in theory it has been criticised as not being as effective as is necessary, an extract from the guardian paper makes this clear; 'Since the 1964 police act set the shape of the current arrangements for police accountability there have been several attempts to achieve a satisfactory system for making complaints against the police. None has so far succeeded in commanding the confidence of both police and public'11.
To properly judge the effectiveness of the police complaints procedure we must look at it in detail. Below is an outline of the procedure as stated by the Police Act 199612. By appointing an officer from another force, the citizen here is ensured of some greater impartiality, but the option to do this still falls to the chief officer. If he does however choose someone outside of his own force the act also ensures that the investigating officer has not been previously connected with the case. Also any formal investigations are supervised be PCA adding a further element of protection
In cases against senior officers a member of another force is nearly always assigned to investigate to ensure there is no misconduct. While in theory this a good idea, it still dies not eliminate the possibility of the case ineffectively handled either purposefully or otherwise. In general, as can be seen above, the Police Complaints Procedure has attempted where possible to an effective method whereby the police are accountable for their actions. However the "who guards the guardians" is one of the most vexed issues in the art of governance.
In the case of the investigation of a senior officer it is still the case of the police policing themselves13. The procedures in general are self-monitoring in nature, and only when the situation in of a very serious nature does any form of effective external monitoring come into play. However a major study evaluating the PCA suggests that it can operate effectively in its supervisory role resource constraints normally prevent more than token supervision14Yet other studies also show that the current system fails to command confidence among complainants, the police or the public at large15.
When considering the suitability of another body investigating the police it must considered that while the police investigating their own officers has attracted criticism there are very few other professionals qualified to undertake such investigations16. By and large the general consensus seems to be a negative one. Due to a lack of faith in existing procedures increasingly, civil actions against the police have been resorted to.
For example, miners who alleged police brutality at the Orgreave picket line during the 1984-1985-coal dispute had no faith in the complaint process and turned to the civil courts to pursue claims for compensation. In June 1991, 39 members of the National Union of Mineworkers collectively settled their action against the chief constable of South Yorkshire police for a total of i?? 425,00017. Police misconduct exists in various guises – brutality, fabrication of evidence, corruption, racism, for example – all of which have attracted intense media attention in recent years18.
The more private cases that are taken to court, and are made the subject of media attention, the more the public will lose faith in the existing measures. In this respect even if the manner in which police officers are held accountable was reasonably effective more of the time, individual cases such as that of Stephen Lawrence, would continue shatter public confidence. However, the Police Complaints procedures shown above do not include the relevant sections whereby the complaint identifies possible criminal proceedings.
In this case the crown prosecution service takes over, this external body does offer a better sense of impartiality in that police matters are being investigated not only by the police. Besides the complaints procedure other general criticisms that have been levelled at the police for their investigative role in their own affairs include that in court, in some cases the reality is often the police officers word against a defendants. Given police officers are trained to present evidence in court, they are likely to appear more credible witnesses, especially where they enjoy public confidence19.
Also by employing officers from the same station to investigate complaints against another officer its not unreasonable to think they may not work as hard to uncover any misconduct. This could be a deliberate attempt to shield a friend or a subconscious action out of a desire to protect the station from criticism. On the whole I believe that while matters would be much worse if PACE and the PCA were not in existence, current procedures do not at the moment prove to be entirely effective.