I want to make a complaint against the police- what is the process?

Has a member of the police force acted unlawfully or inappropriately? This article explains how and when to use the police complaints process to seek redress.

What is a police complaint?

There is a police force in every area of England and Wales. Each department will have a Professional Standards Department, where complaints will be handled. Serious incidents will be looked into by the IOPC, the Independent Office for Police Conduct. A complaint can encompass anything that you are unhappy with that involves the police.

What can I complain about?

All police officers are required to observe the following standards of professional conduct:

  • Authority, Respect and Courtesy - Police officers must act with self-control and tolerance. Police officers must not abuse their powers or authority and must respect the rights of all individuals.
  • Challenging and Reporting Improper Conduct - Police officers must report, challenge or take action against the conduct of colleagues which has fallen below the Standards of Professional conduct.
  • Confidentiality - Police officers must treat information with respect and access or disclose it only in the proper course of police duties.
  • Discreditable conduct - Police officers must behave in a manner which does not discredit the police service or undermine public confidence in it, whether on or off duty. Police officers must report any action taken against them for a criminal offence, any conditions imposed on them by a court or the receipt of any penalty notice.
  • Duties and Responsibilities - Police officers must be diligent in the exercise of their duties and responsibilities.
  • Equality and Diversity - Police officers must act with impartiality. They must not discriminate unlawfully or unfairly.
  • Fitness for Duty - Police officers when on duty or presenting themselves for duty must be fit to carry out their responsibilities.
  • Honesty and Integrity - Police officers must act with integrity, must not compromise or abuse their position.
  • Orders and Instructions - Police officers can only give and carry out lawful orders and instructions. Police officers must abide by police regulations, force policies and lawful orders.
  • Use of Force - Police officers must only use force to the extent that it is necessary, proportionate and reasonable in all the circumstances.

If any police officer or volunteering police officer fails to meet the above standards, there will be grounds for a complaint. If any complaint finds misconduct or gross misconduct, this could lead to disciplinary action for the officers involved. It could also highlight training gaps needed within the force. You can also complain about how the police force is run, raising concerns about policing standards or policing policy; this is known as ‘direction and control’.

Who can make a Complaint Against the Police?

As per Section 12 of the Police Reform Act, a complaint may be made by any of the following:

  1. a member of the public who claims that the conduct took place in relation to him or her
  2. a member of the public who claims to have been adversely affected by the conduct, even though it did not take place in relation to him or her
  3. a member of the public who claims to have witnessed the conduct
  4. a person acting on behalf of someone who falls within any of the three categories above.

How long do I have to make a complaint against the police?

If you have not made the complaint within 12 months, you will need to provide good reason for not doing so otherwise your complaint may likely be declined.

The 12-month deadline will only be extended in exceptional circumstances. In any event, it is generally best to lodge a complaint as soon as possible so that evidence and investigative opportunities are not lost.

How can I make a complaint against the police?

If you are looking to make a complaint against the police, there a number of options.

  1. You can make an online complaint directly to the IOPC here.
  2. You can make a complaint in writing or via email to the IOPC
  3. You can make a complaint over the telephone at either your local police station or to the IOPC or via 101
  4. You can make a complaint in person at your local police station
  5. You can make a complaint through a solicitor
  6. You can contact your local MP

It may be preferable to lodge your complaint directly with the IOPC so there can be no doubt that they have been made aware of it.

Who can I make a complaint about?

As well as police forces, you can use the police complaints system to complain about:

  • Police officers, staff members, contractors or volunteers within the police force
  • All police forces within England and Wales
  • British Transport Police
  • Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs
  • Ministry of Defence Police
  • the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority
  • the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime
  • the National Crime Agency
  • the parts of the Home Office that carry out border and immigration functions
  • Police and Crime Commissioners

How is a police complaint dealt with?

There are three ways the authorities deal with police complaints:

  1. local resolution
  2. local investigation
  3. a direct referral to the IOPC.

Once your complaint has been lodged it will be formally recorded. From here, the mode of investigation will be decided. It is important to note that your complaint should be accurately and completely recorded so that nothing is missed from the investigation.

  1. Local Resolution

The local force may suggest resolving your complaint by way of 'local resolution'. This is an informal process which cannot result in a finding of misconduct or disciplinary action against the officers involved. It is often considered by the IOPC as the most appropriate approach for most complaints. It should only be used for quite trivial, low-level matters. The decision to use local resolution can be used without the complainant's consent and there is no right of appeal against such a decision. The only way of challenging this is by way of Judicial Review. Any Judicial Review must be brought promptly and in any event within three months of the decision.

The outcome should be confirmed by the police in writing.

  1. Local Investigation

Most complaints that are not dealt with by way of local resolution will be investigated by the local force. This is known as a 'local investigation'. Local Investigation has a stricter procedure and terms of reference are set in advance. The complainant should be updated every 28 days. The complaint will usually be allocated to an investigating officer who should be identified to you at the outset of the complaint investigation. The investigating officer may wish to meet with you and take a statement. It may be preferable to prepare a statement in advance to ensure that it contains everything you wish to say. The investigating officer should also put the officers concerned on notice of the complaint, take statements from them and consider any other relevant evidence.

Unlike local resolution, it can result in sanctions for the police officers involved, e.g. misconduct hearings and final written warnings. The outcome should be provided in a written report. The investigation report can prove useful for any subsequent civil compensation claim.

Note that unlike most local resolutions, in certain criteria there is a right of appeal to the IOPC (within 28 days).

  1. Direct Referral to the Independent Office for Police Conduct

If at any stage of the complaint investigation it appears to the investigating officer that there has been criminal conduct on the part of an officer, the matter should be referred to the CPS. It also remains open to the investigating officer to refer the matter back to the IOPC if it appears to be more serious than initially thought. Instead of investigating themselves, the police are required by law to refer certain matters directly to the IOPC. They include “complaints and recordable conduct matters that include allegations of conduct which constitutes”:

-behavior on the grounds of a person’s race, sex, religion or other status

-complaints or conduct matters which are alleged to have arisen from the same incident as anything falling within these criteria.

-criminal offence or behavior which is liable to lead to misconduct proceedings and which, in either case, is aggravated by discriminatory

-a relevant offence

-serious assault

-serious corruption including abuse of position for a sexual purpose or for the purpose of pursuing an improper emotional relationship

-serious sexual offence

What happens at the outcome of my complaint?

Upon the outcome of your complaint, the investigating office will produce a written report which will detail their findings. The report will confirm whether there is a case for unsatisfactory performance, misconduct or gross misconduct.

Where misconduct or gross misconduct is found there should be a misconduct meeting or hearing which can result in a warning, disciplinary action or even dismissal depending on the seriousness of the case. However, sometimes the appropriate authority may only impose management advice or training, or they may decide that no action is required at all.

They will then make recommendations as to how to address the issues identified.

If you are dissatisfied with the outcome of your police complaint you may have a right of appeal, depending on the level of investigation. You should be advised of any appeal right when you are notified of the outcome. You can read more about the appeals process here. You may also attend any misconduct meeting or hearing involving the officers in question. You may be asked to give evidence.

How do I benefit from lodging a complaint?

Benefits from complaining about an officer’s conduct include:

  • Lodging a complaint will place your grievance on record which will be included in complaint statistics.
  • It will also appear on the officer's disciplinary record.
  • It can also be the most effective means of preventing similar incidents from occurring in the future by identifying training needs and organisational learning.
  • The police complaints process is the most direct route to having an officer disciplined or prosecuted for criminal conduct.

Therefore, even if your complaint is not upheld, it may provide evidence of a pattern of behaviour which triggers further investigation into the officer's conduct. If nothing else, making a complaint gives a clear message that misconduct by the police will not be tolerated.

Can I recover compensation?

On their own standing, complaints against the police will not result in an award of compensation. However, upheld complaints may be supportive of compensation claims against the police. Unfortunately, the vast majority of police complaints are not upheld. The complaints process can also take a very long time. Many complainants find the process to be lengthy, stressful and frustrating.

To obtain compensation you will need to make a civil claim against the police. It is not necessary to make a complaint before pursuing a claim, but the complaint investigation may unearth valuable evidence in support of a potential civil claim. If you wish to pursue a civil claim, you should obtain legal advice at the earliest opportunity as there are strict deadlines ('limitation dates') that must be complied with.

Our specialist solicitors within the Civil Liberties and Police Misconduct Team have extensive experience of representing clients in both complaints and civil claims against the police. If you are seeking advice on making a complaint or claim, please feel free contact us for an initial, free discussion. Our solicitors can be contacted on 0207 632 4300.


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