Call for independent scrutiny of police

By Mike Houlahan

Public confidence in the police needs to be bolstered by a truly independent Police Complaints Authority, says the authority's chief, Justice Lowell Goddard, QC.

In a strongly worded introduction to the PCA's annual report, which was issued yesterday, Justice Goddard said it had been a demanding year, with significant public scrutiny of the police and the authority.

That included Dame Margaret Bazley's Commission of Inquiry into Police Conduct - a scathing report that included seven recommendations concerning the PCA, each of which had been or would be actioned.

Justice Goddard said the PCA's reliance on police to conduct investigations into their own conduct had the potential to involve conflicts of interest and thus diminish the perceived independence of the authority.

She said Dame Margaret's report had confirmed her view the PCA needed its own "robust investigative capability".

"The public confidence I seek to ensure will be greatly enhanced by the authority being seen to undertake its own investigative work ...

The authority's ability to report and make recommendations in a timely manner will also be enhanced."

The PCA received more than 3500 complaints in the past financial year and almost 3100 were accepted for investigation - a rise of 612 on the previous year.

"The increase ... is disappointing and placed increased pressure on the authority," the report said.

The PCA has one investigations manager and four investigators. Before the establishment of the unit in 2003 police investigated all PCA complaints.

"The authority's investigators now investigate serious complaints against the police and incidents in which deaths or serious bodily harm appear to have resulted from the actions of the police," the report said.

"In addition, the investigators carry out limited investigation work on less serious matters when the authority considers close monitoring of a police investigation to be desirable."

However, a decision to "lift the intensity of its investigation into the most serious matters" was being hampered by the investigation team's high caseload, the report said.

The PCA has been strongly criticised in recent years for its large backlog of cases, and in February the outgoing authority, Judge Ian Borrin, told a select committee that 830 cases were on the books.

In 2006-07 the authority accepted 3093 complaints for investigation, but closed just 1018. However, that closure rate represented a 24 per cent improvement on last year - a gain Justice Goddard said she hoped would be maintained by a Budget funding increase and a review into the backlog which she had commissioned.

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