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Restorative Justice and Police Complaints
Charles Pollard, Chief Constable, Thames Valley Police, UK

Posted 2000-08-12

Before discussing our proposals to introduce restorative justice into the formal police complaints process, it is important to outline briefly what makes up Thames Valley Police and how we came to be where we are now.

Restorative Justice and Thames Valley Police

Thames Valley Police is the largest non-metropolitan police service force in the United Kingdom with nearly 6,000 staff (police and civilian) responsible for policing a population in excess of two million in the centre of southern England, covering the three counties of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire. The mix of rural and urban areas presents a range of challenges for the police, and we are totally committed to working with our communities and our partner agencies to achieve our force aim of “reducing crime, disorder and fear.”

When we first learnt about restorative justice and how it could be used to deal with young offenders and their victims, it seemed just plain common sense that this was something we should use in Thames Valley Police. In the United Kingdom the police have the power to divert young offenders away from a court appearance by giving them a formal police caution as a way of finalising the crime committed, providing certain conditions are met.

When we looked at our traditional cautioning system, we found that no training was given to police officers on how to deliver them. Police officers just did them, with little thought about how effective they were, and never a thought about whether the victim would wish to be involved in some way.

It is fair to say that the needs of the victim of the offence were almost never considered, apart from passing on rudimentary information about what had happened. Some victims were undoubtedly unhappy with the thought that the offender had “got off” with a police caution. They would never be told what exactly that meant, or the reasons that a caution was given. Indeed, with hindsight, one could wonder if, over the years, victims and even offenders have ever truly understood what a police caution means?

The notion of involving the victim in the process and placing the responsibility for the act back onto the offender could not be ignored. The idea that our police officers should actually be trained to deliver a caution in a certain way was unheard of throughout the UK. It is a testament to the strength of restorative justice that so many Thames Valley officers took up the training with an open-minded, enthusiastic approach rarely seen in other training programmes. The project is being independently evaluated by the Oxford University Centre for Criminological Research over a three-year period. They are due to produce their final report in April 2001.

Restorative justice really took off. In order for it to be managed effectively, it was necessary to create a consultancy, based at police headquarters, which had responsibilities for training staff to deliver “on the ground,” the coordination and dissemination of information from around the world, the collection of data necessary for evaluation purposes and monitoring performance. People and organisations from around the UK began to get interested in what we were doing, and our high-profile approach with the media and with presentations at conferences, coupled with the already growing interest from other parties, meant that restorative justice was getting noticed in high places. In the last two years since data has been recorded, (1998 and 1999), we have conducted 1,314 restorative conferences involving victims and/or local community members. We have additionally facilitated 6,869 restorative cautions—not unlike a victim offender mediation (VOM)—in which a restorative process has been used, although without the presence of the victim. Last year, 4,639 reparation agreements were made.

We took every opportunity to allow Government ministers to view conferences, and it came as no surprise when, in 1997, the newly elected Labour Government introduced restorative justice principles into their legislation. Indeed, restorative justice principles crop up in a number of areas—final warning scheme, parenting orders, referral orders, reparation orders. A National Youth Justice Board was established to oversee the work of all agencies involved in the juvenile justice field; and in fact I applied for, and was successful in becoming, a member of the Board. Earlier this year a nationwide training programme was commenced to train members of the Youth Offending Teams involved with young offenders to run restorative conferences. Thames Valley, in partnership with the organisation Crime Concern, provided that training.

As we were developing our ideas on the potential uses of restorative justice, it became obvious that we were at the tip of the iceberg. We saw how it could be used in any “relational” context: anywhere where people had to deal with each other. Police officers were using conferencing techniques to deal with domestic issues and neighbourhood disputes. Indeed I must mention here one neighbourhood dispute where the police were called in excess of 100 times in eight months. An officer ran a conference, and we have never been back. That was seven months ago.

Some of our personnel staff were trained and they, as well as some officers, now run conferences as a way of dealing with grievances and staff disputes. Conferencing has successfully resolved many internal problems and allowed staff to get on with their work.


Restorative Justice and Police Complaints

Whilst encouraging others of the benefits of a restorative approach, we were using soundbites such as “How can you expect young people to understand who they have affected, unless they are told, preferably by those affected?” This obviously applies equally to police officers. If a police officer acts in an inappropriate manner, how can we expect them to change their behaviour if they don’t understand how they have affected others? How can we expect them to want to change, unless they have been through a process which they consider to be fair? And how can we assume that members of the public who make a complaint against an officer feel that justice has been done, when they are no more involved than as providers of statements as to the facts alleged (including little or nothing about the impact it had on them or their families) and sometimes as witnesses in an adversarial and punitive misconduct hearing?

There are strengths as well as weaknesses in the current police complaints system. It provides a certain amount of protection for officers and complainants—in terms of burden of proof and timescales of investigation—but it does not allow for learning, for accepting responsibility, for healing and making amends. It is extremely polarising, even amongst officers who should be working together to fight crime. It’s adversarial approach is akin to the criminal justice system. Why should we expect officers to accept responsibility when they continually see offenders in the criminal courts evading that by having advocates “playing the system” for them?

It is now time for police services throughout the United Kingdom to look carefully at how police complaints are dealt with. The regulations for dealing with complaints come from the Police Act 1996 which sets out how and when complaints must be investigated and how they can be disposed of. There are two distinct types of police complaints—those made by members of the public and “internal discipline” matters raised by members of Thames Valley Police. The Police Act covers complaints made by members of the public. There is no legislation concerning internal complaints, but they tend to be conducted along the same lines for the sake of integrity.

Every police service has a department which investigates complaints against police. In Thames Valley it is called the Professional Standards Unit. The head of the Unit is a chief superintendent. One of his biggest concerns is how to manage internal complaints without the officer going off sick with stress, putting in counter allegations, seeking a medical pension and claiming to be unfit to be interviewed—which means that the investigation cannot proceed and therefore takes years to resolve. All too often we see officers refusing to accept responsibility, claiming it is all someone else’s fault.

We recently had a case where two female police officers claimed that their sergeant was persistently bullying them. Yet other officers on the shift were saying what a good officer he (the sergeant) was, a sound police officer with strong operational credibility. Who should deal with this—Professional Standards or managerial procedures? The policewomen want it taken seriously and insist that the formal processes kick in or they will take the force to an Industrial Tribunal. The sergeant can’t understand why he is being disciplined, when if someone had spoken to him earlier he could and would have changed his behaviour. How does a formal process resolve these issues? Can restorative justice work instead, or does there need to be a mixture of them both?

The code of conduct for police officers covers such issues as honesty and integrity, fairness and impartiality, politeness and tolerance, use of force and abuse of authority, performance of duties, lawful orders, confidentiality, criminal offences, appearance and general conduct. However, as with the criminal law, there is no common theme as to what is acceptable and what is not. One instance of incivility may not be complained about, another may be. Likewise, in the criminal justice system, one case of theft may result in imprisonment for an offender, another may be a fine. Some officers are genuinely surprised when they discover that their remarks have caused offence to a person when they know that others have said nothing, so tacitly condoning the behaviour.

One thing that must be remembered about the police service is that it has several unique features as compared to most jobs. Officers are making life and death decisions. Often decisions have to be made in very quick time. There is a high level of intensity and stress. To operate at that level officers have to have strong levels of discipline and standards. When those standards fail, a response needs to be put in place which is flexible enough to recognise the conditions under which the officer was working, as well as the impact that the failure had on others and the community.

An average number of complaints in Thames Valley is about 450 to 500 per year from members of the public and 100 to 120 internal complaints. Of these around 360 are withdrawn, unsubstantiated or informally resolved. Complaints of serious assaults are dropping. Thames Valley officers arrest 60,000 people each year—we have very few complaints about breach of arrest procedures. Sadly, cases of “incivility to a member of the public” are not going down. The most vulnerable group of officers to be complained about are those aged 28 to 40 who have already completed their probationary two years.


Police Complaints Authority

All complaints are investigated by a Professional Standards Department detective. In order to allay growing concern amongst the public of the police investigating themselves, in 1984 the Government set up an independent body to oversee all complaints made by members of the public. This body is called the Police Complaints Authority. Although complaints are still investigated by the police, they are overseen by the PCA. In serious cases they oversee the investigation itself. In other cases they see the papers and consider the recommendation for disciplinary action or otherwise. The PCA have the power to endorse that decision or to order an alternative sanction. The PCA are not involved in internal complaint cases.

Thames Valley Police have always had a very good relationship with the PCA because of the seriousness with which we view complaints. One member of the PCA visited Thames Valley and immediately understood the potential benefits of restorative justice in the complaints process. This was mainly because, as part of her role, she had to telephone complainants to update them with the progress of the case. Investigations take an absurdly long time. Time and again she would hear the complainant say “I just wish I could somehow let the officer know how he made me feel. That’s all I want to do.” Restorative justice can allow exactly that. There are some cases where action is taken against the officer which the complainant did not want, so they are still left feeling dissatisfied.

For the last year, Thames Valley Police have worked with the PCA and the local Police Federation (the police “trade union”) to produce a policy paper which outlines how restorative justice can be included in the current processes, without breaking any regulations. Obviously, a change in the law would be welcome, but as that is not yet forthcoming, we have to work within the system. I am confident that in time, with successful cases under our belt and increasing uptake of this approach, regulations will be changed, just as they have within the juvenile justice legislation, and Restorative Interventions (as we call them) will become the norm in many cases.

Of course there will always be cases so serious that officers need to be dismissed or required to resign or have other sanctions imposed. Restorative Interventions will not be for everyone for various reasons. But we are urging our staff to be creative in their approach to police complaints, to maximise opportunities for officers to understand how people are affected by their behaviour and to involve those affected in a positive way, which allows them to carry on with their lives or work.

We have drawn up the official policy paper, as I mentioned earlier, and I will explain that in a moment. At the time of producing it, we thought that that was 100 percent of the work—to put that policy in place and then “off we go”! But what is really interesting is that actually, that is only 10 percent of the job—the other 90 percent is about what happens unofficially.

The other 90 percent is all about the culture of our staff: how in their job they deal with others, how they reflect on whether they have done a good job, how they receive feedback and accept responsibility. How do we get officers to the negotiating table without them going off sick and hiding behind their legal representation?

We have many, many fine officers in Thames Valley. I’m talking about those few whose behaviour is not acceptable. Some will accept behaviour from peers which they would not tolerate from a member of the public. Some have even risked losing their jobs rather than tell the truth about another officer’s bad behaviour. That is of course a sad part of police culture the world over.

We have a duty to deal effectively with anyone who’s behaviour is unacceptable to others. We had a dreadful case a couple of years ago of an officer who behaved appallingly to a group of colleagues over a period of time, to the point of stalking them and making allegations intended to ruin their domestic situations. It was dealt with formally and the officer dismissed. A background check on that officer showed that he had behaved in a similar manner ten years ago but that it was not dealt with effectively. Could the later “victims” have a claim against the organisation now? We cannot afford to ignore poor behaviour anymore.

We also have cases where it is the “sledgehammer to crack a nut” syndrome—only the hammer misses! These are mainly due to supervisors feeling unable to deal with inappropriate behaviour, for many reasons, and so the behaviour continues. Then, when a minor breach of the code of conduct occurs, the full weight of the system is thrown against the officer because its the only thing that can be proven, and it takes away the responsibility from the supervisor. How can we move from the adversarial, evidence-gathering, “no comment” route to a search for the truth, which the PCA have undertaken to support? We need to build trust. We need to provide officers with an alternative, to show that it works and that it is fairer to everyone.


Restorative Interventions in Police Complaints: The Policy

Our policy paper outlines how Restorative Interventions may be used in the formal procedures, and this falls into three main streams.

1. Informal resolution as an alternative to investigation.

This is where a member of the public has made a complaint about an officer and the nature of the allegation is such that is not serious enough to justify formal disciplinary proceedings. In general terms, this would normally be where an officer has perhaps been uncivil or rude to the member of the public. Anything more serious, such as an assault, corruption or a criminal act, would almost certainly not be suitable for an informal resolution.

Very often in these cases, the complainant wants to be acknowledged and receive an apology. They want to know that the officer’s supervisor is aware, and they do not want a formal investigation. In these cases, with their permission, a Restorative Intervention could be the ideal solution. It would give the complainant the opportunity to tell the officer how they felt, the officer would learn by that and may also have the opportunity to explain the reason for their behaviour. It could be that the complainant accepts some responsibility for the situation and that is a positive aspect for the officer.

As long as the complainant is happy with the outcome of this approach, that would be the end of the matter, and we will have saved ourselves the cost, time and distress of a formal investigation.

2. Restorative Intervention as an alternative to advice or a written warning.

Those cases which are not suitable for an Informal Resolution must be investigated. Once the investigation is complete, a recommendation is made to the PCA about how to finalise the case. Historically, examples of recommendations made are for no further action if the complaint is unsubstantiated, or for the officer to receive advice from their area commander, or to receive a written warning. If it is considered serious, a misconduct hearing is arranged in order to impose tougher sanctions. Any sanction greater than advice or written warning must be dealt with through a misconduct hearing.

We now have an agreement with the PCA that we can recommend a Restorative Intervention as an alternative to the advice or written warning. A Restorative Intervention will surely provide a much better opportunity for officers to accept responsibility for their behaviour than to listen to a monologue from their area commander. Indeed, we have been challenging our area commanders to consider how they deliver their advice. We asked them: “Do you just get the officer in, tell them they’ve been a prat and not to do it again?” You would be amazed how many heads nodded. We asked them if they ever considered contacting the complainant before giving the advice, so that they could pass anything of relevance to the officer, or keep the complainant involved and feeling valued. It has never been done, and I am confident that this is the same throughout the United Kingdom, not just Thames Valley. What actually happens is that the PCA, on agreeing with the recommendation, writes to the complainant telling them of the outcome: “The officer will receive advice.” What on earth does that mean to the complainant? Is that good enough?

By introducing a restorative option, complainants should now be contacted and asked if they wish to participate in any way. This could be by meeting the officer in a conference, or it could be that they don’t want any involvement. At least they will have been included and given choices. The Restorative Intervention can still go ahead without the complainant. There are still many ways of allowing the officer to understand who was affected—we can include their supervisor or other shift members who may also have been affected. A Restorative Intervention can make the “advice” so much more meaningful for so many people.

3. A Restorative Intervention as part of the misconduct hearing.

If the complaint is not suitable for an informal resolution, or too serious for the officer to receive advice or a written warning, or they deny the allegation and ask for a trial, then the case proceeds to a misconduct hearing which is much the same as a court hearing. An assistant chief constable is the presiding officer (judge), assisted by two superintendents. Normally, a senior officer from the Professional Standards Department will present the case and a federation officer will represent the officer. In very serious cases lawyers will be involved. It has all the formalities of a law court with evidence being admitted to prove the facts alleged. But, as in court, there is nothing about how the various parties have been affected by the alleged misconduct.

If the officer pleads guilty or is found guilty, the presiding officer will deliver a sanction. This can be a fine, a reduction in rank or salary, or a dismissal or requirement to resign from the service. Normally the process would not include anything about allowing the officer to accept responsibility for his/her behaviour or to learn about how others were affected.

In our proposal, we would postpone the hearing at the point the officer pleaded guilty or was found guilty, to arrange a Restorative Intervention. Once that had gone ahead, the hearing would reconvene two or three weeks later and the presiding officer would consider whether any further sanctions should be imposed. It is to be hoped that there would be no need if the intervention has gone well and the officer has agreed to reparation.

These, very briefly, are the formal proposals. They seek to go some way to improve the quality of service given to all involved in a complaint case. There is still room for more improvement, but we have to work within the existing legislation. They cover complaint cases where an officer is considered guilty of the allegation.

What about when the case is not substantiated or the officer is found not guilty? We are encouraging our staff to consider a Restorative Intervention at any relevant point. In the future, when the PCA telephone a complainant to tell them that the case has been unsubstantiated due to lack of evidence, it may be possible for the complainant to meet the officer, or at the least, another officer who will listen, and may take back anything of relevance to the officer or his supervisor.

What about cases where an officer has offended members of the shift? Why not hold an intervention for the shift so they can all understand how each has been affected? If the guilty officer is posted to another station, how does the new shift feel about it? Why not hold an intervention to find out and to allow that officer a better chance of being accepted into that work environment? “Rumour control”—the informal police communication system as it is known—will move faster than any officer, so an intervention will give the officer the opportunity to explain what really happened, and how they feel about moving to a new shift.

The opportunities are endless. The timing is appropriate, coming after the McPherson report in London into the death of black teenager Stephen Lawrence and how that case, and the subsequent complaint against police, was handled.


Restorative Justice and Police Culture

Let me return to the culture of the police service. Last year, a wide-ranging survey was conducted with all staff in Thames Valley to gauge their perceptions on what it was like to work in Thames Valley. Only 3 per cent claimed never to have heard of restorative justice and a positive acceptance of restorative justice was confirmed. Indeed the survey showed that the more officers knew about restorative justice, the more they thought that Thames Valley Police did not do enough of it!

The survey also found that many people thought that mistakes were severely punished, that people are only told when they make a mistake, that conflicts are covered up, and that one is left to face the consequences when a mistake is made. We are hoping to change this with a Restorative Intervention approach to how we deal with each other, both in the formal complaints system and in the informal, management approach. Another survey in the future will let us know how we are getting on.

In 1995 we published our Thames Valley Police “Statement of Values.” It reads:


“We are people of integrity who:
    listen and learn
    take responsibility for solving problems
    work together and do what we say we are going to do
    trust and are trusted
    are courageous
    open and fair to all
    challenge, innovate and achieve.”

When we look at the survey findings or consider how we deal with people in the police complaints process, are we working to our values? This is the challenge that I am putting to my staff—and to myself. Restorative justice will change the way we deal with one another—with our colleagues, our families, our partners and the community. It will change our working culture. Restorative justice is, I hope, here to stay.