My investigation into the amounts paid out by police forces across England, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland concluded with two pieces in today’s Times:
Police misconduct costs forces £44m
We need this data to catch and fix problems in system
This is the first-ever disclosure of compensation payouts for public liability claims and clearly shows the value of freedom of information. The high percentage of claims that settle out of court is worrying as it hides the extent and exact nature of allegations of police misconduct.
Also surprising, was that many police forces didn’t actually know how many times they’d been sued or even how much taxpayer money they’d paid out in public liability compensation. How can we have an informed debate about police conduct and the ‘compensation culture’ when the data is unknown? (I’ll be posting up the full database of responses soon.)
In the UK, we have little knowledge about the machinery of government – those records and data created and maintained by the state in the course of its public service duties. Yet this is the data that citizens must have if they are to meaningfully hold the state to account.
How professional and competent are the police? This is a question that gained new relevance in light of the fatal shooting by the Metropolitan Police of an innocent Brazilian Jean Charles de Menzes. In order to answer this question I made Freedom of Information requests to all 55 police forces asking for data about the number of claims received, their progress and final payouts over the past five years.
The results were intriguing and showed that record-keeping continues to be a problem for many police forces. A sizable majority could not say how many claims had resulted in court action, not did they always know how much they had paid out in settlements and it took quite some digging for some forces to even know how often they’d been taken to court!
The reliance on government-imposed mandates at the expense of direct accountability became clear. If it’s not required by Whitehall, many forces simply don’t see a point in keeping accessible data, even if it is clearly in the public interest – such as the amount of taxpayer’s money they’re paying out for police misconduct. For example, Kent Police provided no information at all stating that “we do not at present collect or collate this information and therefore are not in a position to provide it.” Cheshire Police told us that wrongful arrest was “every day sort of stuff” and they “don’t have any need to keep [the data] in the format you asked for.”
Another surprise was that Cleveland Police, which is in the top 3 for both compensation and claims per 100,000 – stated that since 2004 they have stopped recording the number of court actions.
Many forces were loathe to be compared with each other. Durham claimed that its data was “unique and should not be used as a comparison with any other Force response you receive.”
Some forces claimed the only way they could determine if a claim had resulted in court action was to look through hundreds of files at a cost that ranged from 10 minutes per file (Wiltshire Constabulary) to 60 minutes (Strathclyde Police).
The Metropolitan Police, North Yorkshire Police and Greater Manchester Police force claimed (incorrectly) that the data was already published in their annual reports and failed initially to provide page numbers to hundred-page documents. While Warwickshire Police incorrectly used the data protection act to hide the amounts paid out in compensation.
Only 23 per cent of claims make it to court and several forces succeeded in keeping 100 per cent out of court. This is either good or bad news depending on one’s point of view and the exact nature of the claim.
Court is expensive so there is a value-for-money argument in settling cases. But if the claim is a legitimate complaint of police misconduct then there is a public interest in knowing the details so that any systemic problems can be identified and fixed. If every allegation is brushed under the carpet and the claimants paid to keep silent, then problems aren’t known and can’t be fixed.
I would be interested to hear from anyone who has brought a claim against the police to know if the force required a confidentiality agreement to be signed before agreeing to pay out.
Police forces which failed to respond to the FOIA request
South Yorkshire Police
West Yorkshire Police
Kent County Constabulary responded but said “we do not at present collect or collate this information.”
Dorest Police said: “It’s a bit of a mess really, the numbers don’t add up.”