Police custody deaths ‘should be investigated like homicides’

A report found delays to police custody death investigations can add to family distress and impact officers involved.

Police custody deaths ‘should be investigated like homicides’ SNS Group

Investigations into deaths in police custody should be treated with the same urgency as homicide investigations, according to an independent review.

In her report, Dame Elish Angiolini said any delay in such cases can add to the distress of families and have a severe adverse impact on police officers involved.

The 538-page review also recommends a significant increase in powers for watchdog the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (Pirc).

The aim of the review was to consider the current law and practice in relation to complaints handling, investigations and misconduct issues in relation to policing and to make recommendations for improvements.

Dame Elish said she is “acutely aware” of the death of Sheku Bayoh, who died after being restrained by police in May 2015 while officers were responding to a call in Kirkcaldy, Fife.

She said it would be “improper” for her to comment before a public inquiry into the death, which will be chaired by Lord Bracadale, is complete.

Aamer Anwar, solicitor for the family of Sheku Bayoh, said the review is a “devastating and damning indictment of a police complaint system not fit for purpose in a modern and democratic Scotland”.

Pirc investigates deaths in police custody under the direction of the procurator fiscal department known as the Scottish Fatalities Investigation Unit.

The concluded investigation is then passed to the Crown for a decision on any potential criminal proceedings or a fatal accident inquiry.

In her review, Dame Elish said investigations involving death or serious injury in police custody are likely to be “amongst the most serious and complex cases the Pirc has to investigate” and they “clearly demand the highest priority in terms of resources and expertise of the organisation”.

Dame Elish said she does not consider Pirc to be “toothless” but recommends a strengthening of its powers.

She said it should be redesignated as a commission comprising one police investigations and review commissioner and two deputy commissioners, with none of these positions to be held by a former police officer.

It should be made accountable to the Scottish Parliament, she added, though not for criminal matters, for which the commissioner is accountable to the lord advocate.

The report, commissioned by the Scottish Government, says preliminary assessment of misconduct allegations made against senior police officers should be transferred from the Scottish Police Authority to Pirc to “enhance independent scrutiny of allegations, remove any perception of familiarity, avoid any duplication of functions or associated delay and give greater clarity around the process”.

It recommends Pirc take on responsibility for the key stages of senior officer misconduct proceedings and that it should have the power to recommend suspension of a senior officer if he or she believes that not suspending the officer may prejudice an effective misconduct investigation.

Dame Elish also recommended the Scottish Government look at creating legislation that would allow gross misconduct proceedings against a police officer to continue or start even if they leave the police service, for these hearings to be held in public and determinations published.

She said she was “deeply concerned” by the experience of Police Scotland’s black, Asian and minority ethnic officers, some of whom said they had experienced discrimination in the course of their duties, as had some female police officers and LGBTI officers.

She recommended an independent review into equality in Police Scotland.

Michelle MacLeod, of Pirc, welcomed the review and said it will carefully consider its findings, while the Scottish Police Authority said it would consider the report’s recommendations in full.

John Finnie, convener of the Justice Sub-Committee on Policing, welcomed the report but said: “As sensible as many of these proposals sound, any changes to the law will need formal consultation and proper parliamentary scrutiny in due course.”

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said the report exposed “fundamental flaws” in the complaints system.

He added: “There is clearly no easy fix but acting on Dame Elish’s recommendations will be vital in order to repair public confidence in the integrity of Scottish policing.

“A robust and fair system will not just protect the public but will also protect officers, some of whom have suffered greatly as a result of the existing complaints process.”

Police Scotland Chief Constable Iain Livingstone said: “I am grateful to Dame Elish for her significant work which underlines the range and depth of challenges for policing, those who scrutinise policing, and the public we serve.

“Racism and discrimination of any kind is deplorable and unacceptable and I utterly condemn it. It has no place in society, and no place in policing.

“Our core values are integrity, fairness and respect and a commitment to upholding human rights. These are the foundations of policing in Scotland and are demonstrated every day by officers and staff up and the down the country.

“Values based policing which reflects and represents our communities is vital to the public confidence and consent from which policing draws its legitimacy.

“That bond of trust is maintained and enhanced by our commitment to improving standards where learning is identified.

“I agree it is crucial that the culture of Police Scotland is welcoming and inclusive to all and that we support all our people to thrive and flourish in what is an extremely demanding job.

“Dame Elish’s recommendations are wide-ranging and their implications now require careful consideration. Police Scotland will continue to work with communities and other partners to relentlessly improve how we serve our fellow citizens and maintain their trust and support.”

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