COMMENT | Previously, I discussed the Hong Kong Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). In Hong Kong, the police conduct their own investigations of complaints about them. The IPCC observes and vets the investigations. Half the Hong Kong public do not believe it is independent.
I also noted that the Hong Kong Police Force publishes annual fact sheets which include numbers of complaints and investigation outcomes.
Here, I will discuss the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, the institution which deals with all complaints against the police.
The ombudsman’s predecessor was the Independent Commission for Police Complaints (ICPC).
The ICPC was established in 1987. It was required to supervise police investigations of death or injury. It could, if it decided it was in the public interest, supervise investigations of other complaints. It had no subpoena power, could not investigate on its own, could not initiate investigations.
The ICPC approved or disapproved case Investigation Officers (IO) assigned by the police; selectively observed interviews of complainants, officers and witnesses; decided, with the IO, whether the investigation was complete; and, issued a letter, to pronounce whether the investigation was satisfactory. Over its 14-year life, it never pronounced an investigation “unsatisfactory.”
For decades, due to deep resentments between Catholics and Protestant communities, Northern Ireland was conflict-ridden. The beginning of the end of the unrest was the Belfast Agreement of 10 April 1998, which supported by 71 percent of Northern Ireland in a referendum held 40 days later.
One outcome of the Agreement was a decision to give the policing of Northern Ireland to the people of Northern Ireland.
The basis for the handover was “The Report of the Independent Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland,” published in September 1999. The commission, chaired by Chris Patten, former governor of Hong Kong, took 16 months to complete its work.
The Patten Commission recommended enhancing the powers of an office of ombudsman which had been established in 1998. This extract from the Patten Commission Report gives an insight into the design and birth of the office of ombudsman:
“[Dr Maurice Hayes] report of January 1997 found the existing system inadequate and recommended an independent police ombudsman with his/her own independent team of investigators, and a change in the standard of proof required in police disciplinary cases. The Hayes report was accepted by all parties in Northern Ireland and by the police themselves, and its recommendations passed into law in 1998.”
On 6 November 2000, the ICPC was replaced by the enhanced ombudsman, which continues to this day. The powers, processes and resources of the ombudsman are vastly different from that of the ICPC.
The role and powers of the ombudsman are set out in The Police (Northern Ireland) Act 1998.
It is not far off the mark to say that the ombudsman is a police force which is authorised, equipped and resourced to police the police.
The ombudsman is responsible for investigating all complaints concerning the police. It must investigate all cases of discharges of police firearms, all fatal road traffic collisions involving police officers and all deaths which may have been caused by the actions of a police officer.
The ombudsman has teams of professional investigators. They gather evidence to determine whether police officers acted improperly in any situation reported to it, or situations which it chooses to investigate.
The Ombudsman Office conducts and publishes surveys at regular intervals. It has achieved great success.
A 2007 public opinion survey found that 88 percent of Protestants and 84 percent of Catholics believed both police officers and complainants would be treated fairly by the Police Ombudsman’s Office.
In 2018/2019, the Complainant Satisfaction Survey found that: “Almost three fifths of respondents said they understood the reason [the Police Ombudsman’s Office] gave for reaching the final decision about their complaint, and of these, over three quarters accepted this decision.”
In 2018/2019, the Police Officer Satisfaction Survey found that:
- 87 percent of officers felt they were treated with respect by ombudsman staff.
- 78 percent of officers felt they were treated fairly by ombudsman staff.
- 90 percent of officers felt ombudsman staff were easy to understand.
- 73 percent of officers thought ombudsman staff were knowledgeable.
The ombudsman publishes statistics at regular intervals.
One example is the “Annual Statistical Bulletin of the Police Ombudsman, Northern Ireland, 2017/2018” which runs to 47 pages, including the covers. It contains numerous trend graphs, tables and paragraphs of analysis.
Here are some highlights:
- There were 2,561 complaints, containing 4,241 allegations.
- Fifty-three percent of complaints had an identified officer associated with them.
- The most frequent allegations were failure in duty, oppressive behaviour, and incivility.
- One-third of complaints were subject to a full investigation. In one-quarter of fully investigated complaints, the office found evidence to substantiate all or part of the complaint, or identified another concern during the investigation.
- Six times, prosecution was recommended.
- Discipline or performance actions were recommended 197 times.
- A total of 2,656 complaints were closed.
On Aug 1, 2019, there were 6,999 police officers, ranging from part-time constables (265) to the Chief Constable, and 2,299 other staff.
This adds up to a total of about 9,300 police personnel. The overall complaint rate is one complaint per four police personnel.
Unlike the Hong Kong system, the Northern Ireland system is completely independent of the police. It is vastly different from its predecessor, the ICPC.
The ombudsman is a police force which is authorised, equipped and resourced to police the police. It is well-regarded by both the public and the police.
Like the Hong Kong Police Force, the Police Service of Northern Ireland publishes statistics and utilises satisfaction surveys.
How will Malaysia’s Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission be similar to the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland?
RAMA RAMANATHAN is spokesperson for Citizens Against Enforced Disappearances (Caged).
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.