After working with families bereaved after deaths following police contact for 30 years, it comes as no surprise that the initial reports of the death of Ian Tomlinson were at best partial and at worst an attempt to deflect attention from the involvement and potential wrongdoing of police officers.
It was also unsurprising that the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) failed to grasp the significance of the context of his death and immediately initiate a robust and independent investigation. This failure of judgement is extraordinary given the widespread concerns both about the death, and criticisms of their investigation following the death of Jean Charles de Menezes.
Any evaluation of the IPCC must consider the context in which the organisation was established and the climate of distrust and lack of public confidence in the police complaints system. In the mid-1990s a series of contentious high-profile deaths in police custody following excessive use of force generated widespread political, media and public concern and raised questions about the role of the Police Complaints Authority.
The conclusions of the Home Affairs Select Committee Inquiry into Police Complaints and Discipline and the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry in 1999, coupled with many years of campaigning by bereaved families, lawyers, complainants, police monitoring groups and human rights organisations led to the Police Reform Act 2002, which established the Independent Police Complaints Commission in 2004.
While retaining a healthy scepticism, everyone hoped that it would make a real difference to the independence and transparency of the investigation of complaints against the police and in particular that bereaved families would have more confidence in the new system and that the approach of the IPCC would be fair and impartial resulting in just outcomes of the investigations. However, there has not been a corresponding development of trust and confidence in the new system among those complainants with which it has the most direct contact.
Despite Inquest‘s best efforts and those of lawyers with whom we work to contribute and assist the IPCC by sharing our experience and positively contributing to its understanding of the issues arising from our casework, it has not been a fruitful experience. Too many times we have seen a failure by the IPCC to understand or appreciate the historical context from which it came. This has been sometimes exemplified by an over-eagerness to adopt highly defensive positions when faced with any criticism – a reaction which, if made public, only serves to strengthen critical perceptions of the police complaints system. This raises an important question – can an organisation that finds it difficult to hear criticism and learn lessons about its own functioning ensure accountability of the police from the cases it investigates?
We have identified worrying trends in the way that families have been treated by the IPCC that are reminiscent of previous discredited practices (Unlocking the Truth – Coles and Shaw 2007). Without a thorough awareness and honest examination of these trends, their links to past problems and what caused them, it is not possible for a new system to avoid the same bad practices or to recreate the same flawed culture and systemic failings that previously undermined public confidence.
We suggest that the IPCC take seriously the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee report (March 2009) which said “the absence of feedback from those who have had direct experience of dealing with the IPCC is a significant oversight…” and the lack of “specialised external scrutiny of the IPCC’s investigations or appeals”. In Wednesday’s Guardian, John Crawley pointed out that the concern about how the voice of complainants and the public could be heard was never debated. Had the IPCC been able to obtain and listen to feedback from ourselves, bereaved families and the lawyers who represent them, perhaps their approach to this most recent death may have been different.
Public confidence in an independent police complaints system has once again been undermined. It is vital that this death ensures proper public scrutiny of the conduct of both individual police officers and the policing operation so that the family of Mr Tomlinson and the wider public find out the truth about what happened (and that those responsible are held to account).