Yorkshire’s biggest police force is facing claims that misconduct by its officers may have been going unpunished because complaints by members of the public were not being properly recorded.
West Yorkshire Police says a dramatic recent increase in the number of complaints recorded about its officers is “almost entirely” down to a change in recording practice, with even the most minor concerns now formally logged.
A lawyer specialising in police complaint cases welcomed the change in practice, but said it raised questions “about why so many complaints were not being included in the statistics before now and whether they were being properly recorded”.
It is claimed the force may have been in breach of its legal duty to properly record all complaints whether it is a minor matter that can be resolved locally or something more serious that requires an investigation.
Elsewhere in the region, North Yorkshire and Humberside recorded fewer complaints last year, while South Yorkshire Police said its rise may be linked to the Rotherham abuse scandal and the Hillsborough disaster.
The number of recorded West Yorkshire Police complaint cases rose from 991 between August 2013 and July 2014 to 1,518 for the same period 12 months later, an increase of 53 per cent.
The most common cause of complaint was ‘other neglect or failure in duty’, which rose from 453 allegations to 712. This could include lack of respect and courtesy, use of excess force or discrimination.
The number of complaints about lack of fairness and impartiality by officers also nearly doubled in a year, from 133 to 242.
The big rise in recorded complaints raises the possibility that large numbers of allegations were not being properly recorded prior to the changes.
In 2013, West Yorkshire’s police commissioner launched an independent review of the way complaints are handled amid fears public trust had been eroded by a series of scandals.
Gus Silverman, a civil liberties lawyer at Irwin Mitchell, said: “Any police force which has not been recording complaints which it considers minor or suitable for local resolution has therefore been breaching the law underpinning the police complaints system.
“Unfortunately we regularly see clients whose complaints have not been properly recorded or investigated by the force concerned. This can often result in misconduct going unpunished and opportunities for policing improvements being missed.”
Nationally, research by the Office for National Statistics in 2013 found 35 per cent of people do not have confidence that the police will deal with their complaint fairly and 78 per cent of people said they were not satisfied by how their complaint was handled.
The Government is proposing to reform the system, requiring all complaints to be recorded and giving Police and Crime Commissioners the discretion to take over certain aspect of the police complaints system.
West Yorkshire Police says it is trying to “further professionalise the complaints system and raise standards” ahead of the changes being introduced nationally.
Of the policing districts, Leeds saw the biggest rise in the number of recorded complaints last year, increasing by 36 per cent from 481 complaint allegations to 654. Bradford also saw a rise of 29 per cent.
Detective Chief Superintendent Clive Wain, of the force’s Professional Standards Department, said: “The rise in the number of complaints reported is almost entirely due to the way in which complaints are now recorded.
“This follows recommendations from the HMIC and IPCC to ensure that West Yorkshire Police has the ability to appropriately check its own procedures and performance.
“Minor complaints, such as failure by an officer to return a call, would previously have been captured and then dealt with at district level, but are now all are centrally recorded for greater transparency and accountability.
“In reality, complaints during the period increased by 0.2 per cent, or four complaints.
“We have proactively made a number of changes to our complaints procedures, which means that all complaints are treated with openness and transparency, in line with the Code of Ethics.
“We will continue to look to offer the best possible service to members of the public to ensure that they are confident their concerns will be taken seriously and dealt with effectively.”
Temporary chief constable Dee Collins told The Yorkshire Post earlier this year that the force had not “always got it right” on complaints and “not had the humility to apologise to the public for that”.
She said: “I hope that the public are now finding West Yorkshire Police is taking more responsibility and caring about their concerns in a better way, certainly that has been the push from me for the last 12 months.”
According to watchdog the Independent Police Complaints Commission, the number of allegations recorded per 1,000 West Yorkshire Police employees between April and July this year was 62, a big rise on the figure of 37 for the same period last year but still below the national average and those of other comparable forces.
The number of complaint cases and allegations per 1,000 officers has been rising steadily, in line with other forces, since 2012, though the increase has been sharper in the last year.
In recent months, the force has made a dramatic shift from dealing with just nine per cent of complaints with a local resolution, which does not involve the disciplinary process, to 73 per cent, meaning less than a fifth are subject to a full investigation.
Police commissioner Mark Burns-Williamson said: “It is important that everyone has the confidence to be able to report any concerns or complaints they may have about the police and that any such complaints will be properly looked at and, where necessary, acted upon.
“I’m working closely with the Chief Officer Team of West Yorkshire Police to scrutinise the increase in recorded complaints and to ensure that they know the reasons behind this and are learning the lessons that arise from complaints made against the police.”
In South Yorkshire, a professional standards document seen by The Yorkshire Post shows the number of complaints about officers rose by 44.1 per cent from 438 in 2013 to 631 in 2014.
The force said it had one of the lowest rates of complaints nationwide, but that the rise may be linked to last year’s Rotherham child sex scandal and ongoing coverage of the Hillsborough disaster.
In North Yorkshire, the number of complaints has fallen sharply in the last year, from 85 per 1,000 employees between April and July last year to 50 in the same period this year.
The force says that this is because, in contrast to West Yorkshire, it recently started recording low-level complaints as a “triage” matter so they could be resolved more quickly. Humberside Police’s total also fell slightly in the same period.