Cause for complaint

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 May, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 May, 1997, 12:00am

There is no question that the police have a difficult job to do. People who break the law invariably resent it when they are caught. Hardened criminals may seek vengeance on those who put them in prison for long terms, unjustifiably complaining of brutality and harassment.

But even if that is the background to a sizeable proportion of the complaints filed against the police, it is striking that, out of 5,052 allegations last year, 972 were 'resolved by informal resolution' and only 113 were substantiated. Every year, the same questions emerge: How can the percentage of false or unwarranted complaints be so high, and is the system under which complaints are investigated properly constituted and operating effectively? Fairly or otherwise, the Complaints Against Police Office is regarded as an organisation which places more emphasis on protecting the force than on its investigative role. The Independent Police Complaints Council, which monitors and reviews the work of the office, still lacks the independence it needs to build public confidence.

All its members are officials. The Government has been asked to give the council teeth, but has consistently failed to do so. There can be little doubt that the body's authority would be strengthened if members of the public were on the council.

The police view is that they have a highly specialised job and only fellow officers can understand the circumstances under which they work. This is hardly a convincing argument. Police work may involve special knowledge and techniques, but so do many professions.

There is, however, also a deeper question involved. Justice has to be seen to be done to command proper respect. This means that law enforcement officers have to be seen to act correctly in carrying out their duties, and not to be sheltering behind any special protection.

They must not, of course, be hampered in carrying out their work, but the police are public servants and it is not unreasonable for ordinary people to be represented in any organisation which looks into the circumstances of police misconduct.

Improvements are slowly being introduced into the council system. The force is prepared to accept lowered standard of proof in less serious cases, and meetings are to be opened to the public. These measures are welcome, but do not go far enough. Until people are convinced that there is a thoroughly independent body looking into these matters, doubts are inevitable about whether the police enjoy special treatment.

The force commands a high degree of respect, but officers are as fallible as the rest of humanity. Precisely because theirs is such vital work, they must be held accountable.