After a number of incidents that shook public confidence, the rebuilding of the reputation of the police has not always proceeded with total smoothness. A high standard, based on a commitment to enforce the law with fairness, common sense and integrity, has occasionally remained elusive. But a considerable plus in this process has been the role played by the Independent Police Conduct Authority in investigating serious complaints against the police. Its investigations have shone an often reassuring light on the force's practices, and provided a greater understanding of the complexities of the job. All parties should, therefore, welcome the authority's wish to spread its wings.
The chairman, Sir David Carruthers, has told Parliament's law and order select committee that it wants to be able to initiate its own inquiries. At the moment, it can act only on complaints, a situation with its genesis in the non-independent Police Complaints Authority. According to Sir David, this means serious issues involving the police's reputation are going unexamined by an independent investigation.
As much became obvious last year when normal police procedures were comprehensively flouted during Operation Explorer, leading a judge to throw out charges against 21 people associated with a Nelson motorcycle gang, the Red Devils.
The episode demanded an inquiry by the Independent Police Conduct Authority, but this could not be instigated because there had been no complaint. It was, Sir David said, "not a bad example" of where the authority could have shed light on the police's behaviour. This would have ensured serious operational failings were not swept under the table by the police themselves, and that there was a far greater chance the misconduct was not repeated.
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It is not difficult to envisage similar incidents in the future. But for any of a number of reasons, no complaint may be forthcoming. Sometimes, it will be extremely uncomfortable for a person to raise their head above the parapet. The capacity to initiate inquiries would allow the authority to move faster to investigate conduct like that in the Louise Nicholas case. Indeed, there would also have been a far quicker verdict on issues raised by the police shooting of Steven Wallace at Waitara in 2000, the aftermath of which sparked public dissatisfaction and prompted the formation of the independent authority.
The flaws in the legislation governing the authority do not end there. It has the right to publish reports on any case that it considers "in the public interest". That phrase implies such reporting should be the exception, and so it has proved. At a time when society is demanding greater transparency and accountability, only a few reports have been issued each year. Happily, Sir David also wants this to change. "It's likely that we will be reporting on all investigations unless there's an overwhelming private interest that's paramount," he said.
His intentions will not be universally welcomed within the ranks of the police. Inevitably, feathers will occasionally be ruffled. But the authority's reputation for fairness and rigour leaves the police with little to fear and much to gain from outside scrutiny if officers adhere to what was once a customarily high standard of professionalism. There is also a pay-off in a greater public appreciation of their work, not least the everyday pressures under which they operate.
Justice Lowell Goddard, QC, the first head of the Independent Police Conduct Authority, did a fine job in her five-year term. After nearly a year in the job, Sir David has revealed an admirable intention to make the authority even more relevant and effective. Both the police and the public stand to benefit.