A Yorkshire police force has brought in a team of mediators to help deal with complaints made about its officers by members of the public.
A pilot scheme run by West Yorkshire Police, believed to be one of the first of its type in the country, sees Leeds charity Yorkshire Mediation lead meetings between the complainant and the officer in low-level cases.
Though the scheme is in its early stages and has only so far dealt with one case in this way, the idea is described as ‘new and exciting’ by Yorkshire’s biggest force.
Separately, two West Yorkshire Police officers are due before misconduct hearings in the coming days after being convicted of criminal offences.
One, Pc Christopher Lockwood, pleaded guilty to driving without due care and attention after hitting a pedestrian in a marked police car, while another, Pc Michael Fawbert, was found guilty of common assault after using ‘unnecessary’ force on a member of the public who was detained by another officer.
Details of the mediation scheme emerged in a report published on the website of the West Yorkshire police and crime commissioner.
We live in a blame culture which is often a hindrance to resolving minor complaints quickly. We need to move away from a ‘sledgehammer to crack a nut’ scenario.Nick Smart, Police Federation
Yorkshire Mediation led the first meeting free of charge, but say they are yet to hear back from the force about whether the scheme will continue at a “small cost” in the future.
The report said: “It is in the initial stages and we only have one successful example to talk about, however the mediation went well and the process has the full support of the [Police] Federation and buy-in from those involved, both the officer and the person making the complaint.
“The skill in this process is assessment of the complaint at a very early stage and the ability to recognise it as one suitable to be dealt with by way of mediation.
“As soon as one is identified and the officer and complainant confirm they are happy to engage in the process then Yorkshire Mediation facilitate a meeting free of charge between the two to explore the reasons why the incident occurred causing the complaint.
“This is completely confidential and arranged by staff from the mediation group with no input from [professional standards officers], no notes are presented and what is said in the meeting is for the information of those present only.
“This allows a process where the complaint can be recorded and comply with Police Regulations.
“An early meeting is arranged and if the complainant is satisfied with the meeting and no longer wishes to pursue to complaint then an acknowledgement is obtained and the complaint is withdrawn.”
Detective Chief Superintendent Julie Sykes of West Yorkshire Police’s Professional Standards Department said: “This is a pilot project designed for use in low level complaints if all parties are in agreement. We are still in the introductory stages of the pilot which will require an evaluation to confirm if it provides the necessary service to all concerned in the complaints procedure.”
A spokeswoman for Yorkshire Mediation said: “Whilst there is no cost to the complainant, and the first case was conducted free of charge as part of the pilot scheme, there will be a small cost implication for West Yorkshire Police should they decide to engage in a Service Level Agreement with Yorkshire Mediation.
“Although we are a Charitable Company, Limited by Guarantee, we are met with similar overheads to those of any other business or service.
“Without breaching our rules around client confidentiality, we can confirm that the test case was, indeed, successful from the perspective of all involved.
“Early engagement in mediation is certainly of the essence for both parties. For many people, finding yourself in conflict with a member of the Police Force can be stressful in itself, let alone all the feelings associated with the incident in question.
“Conversely, Police employees may find themselves answering a complaint as a result of a split second decision due to the nature of their work. Like any employee in any other environment, they too can endure the uncertainty of the consequences of a complaint which could impact on their career progress or even the livelihood of themselves and dependent family members.
“Swift engagement of mediation services can address any misunderstandings, possibly bring answers to questions one or another need answering or even an apology being offered by either party. However the parties choose to resolve their conflict, early intervention by our trained, experienced, neutral and impartial mediators can reduce the duration of stress or anxiety these situations often create.
“At the time of writing, Yorkshire Mediation awaits a decision from the police authority regarding the continuation of this clearly beneficial area of work.”
Nick Smart, chairman of the West Yorkshire Police Federation, which represents rank and file officers, said he hoped the mediation scheme would speed up the process and “leave all the parties satisfied at the outcome”.
But he said: “We want such low level complaints to be dealt with expeditiously. We also want these low level complaints to be dealt with from a learning and developing stance rather a punitive perspective.
“We live in a blame culture which is often a hindrance to resolving minor complaints quickly. We need to move away from a ‘sledgehammer to crack a nut’ scenario.
“Equally many complaints are about systems or procedures, and not just personal interactions. For example, officers can get complained about if they are following policy and guidance and the other party does not like the outcome.”
The number of complaints recorded against West Yorkshire Police officers has increased in the last two years. Between April 2015 and March 2016, there were 1,867 cases, compared with 1,255 in the previous 12 months.
But it says this is mainly caused by changes in recording practices, as low level complaints were previously not recorded centrally and dealt with by local teams.
Data from the Independent Police Complaints Commission show that the force recorded 159 allegations per 1,000 employees in six months of last year, compared with 140 for similar forces.
According to West Yorkshire Police, “the handling of public complaints is critical to restoring trust and confidence and is an essential tool in allowing lessons to be learned”.
In February 2016, police complaints and conduct issues were taken over by a centralised team, with standardised policies, rather than being dealt with at district level.
This reversed changes made in 2011 which were introduced to save money but actually ended up costing more because of the increased cost of devolving the work to the districts.
The report described a ‘postcode lottery’ about how cases were previously handled and problems caused by ‘protracted, lengthy investigations’.
The force says the changes have dramatically increased the number of ‘local resolutions’, where complaints are resolved or explained directly with the complainant. The time taken to deal with complaints has also fallen.
But concerns have been raised by Police Federation and union officials “that their staff are having discipline findings recorded against them following a complaint being made”.