Given my last couple of posts have been short cathartic rants, this post is a long one, but hopefully I'll explain why.
Following recommendations by the Metropolitan Police Authority after Stockwell, the IPCC recently called for the practice of Police officers being able to confer whilst making statements to stop. This was in direct response to criticisms of Police by the family of Mark Saunders who was fatally wounded by armed officers after he went off his nut and started shooting into other peoples houses and didn't stop when asked. This is the third time the IPCC has called for the practice of conferring to stop after the tragic deaths of Jean Charles de Menezes and Harry Stanley, both of whom were shot by Police officers and were later confirmed to not be armed.
Nick Hardwick of the IPCC said: "The IPCC welcomes the recommendation in the MPA’s scrutiny report that the practice of officers conferring to make their notes following an incident should be discontinued and procedures put in place to demonstrate that the accounts individual officers give are their best and genuinely independent recollections.”
Mr Hardwick added: “We are confident that the investigations we have conducted into fatal police shootings, are rigorous and capable of withstanding public and judicial scrutiny. But we recognise the concern and suspicion this practice sometimes generates amongst bereaved families and many members of the wider public. That suspicion cannot be in the interests of families or the officers concerned.
“The IPCC has a legal duty to secure and maintain public confidence in the police complaints system. As the public body charged with oversight of the Metropolitan Police Service, the MPA’s support for our recommendation confirms the IPCC’s own view that the public do not have confidence in the current procedure in which police witnesses and civilian witnesses to the same incident are treated very differently
“Both the MPA and ourselves recognise the uniquely difficult and dangerous job performed by firearms officers. The IPCC is clear that its investigators do not treat officers as suspects unless there is evidence that an offence has been committed. We recognise that the firearms officers are lawfully carrying weapons and we do not treat them as suspects in a crime unless there is evidence to do so. However, when the state takes a life, we believe that there must be a rigorous investigation and the families and public are entitled to the fullest possible explanation of what occurred and why. This is the approach we have taken in all 14 fatal shootings we have investigated since 2004.
“The current post-incident procedure limits our ability to obtain the best possible evidence from police officers involved in an incident. Each case is different and the importance of the officers' notes will depend on the other evidence we have available.
"The IPCC also recognises that changing the procedures following fatal shootings has far wider implications and may affect the way the police service gathers evidence for criminal investigations. Current guidance reflects the convention that police officer witnesses to an event are permitted to confer before writing their statements. This is a principle in daily police practice. It is not within the IPCC’s power unilaterally to alter policing practices and we recognise that the Police Federation has strong views on the subject.
"While the courts may, in time, come to a definitive ruling on the question of officers’ notes we think ACPO, the Police Federation and the other police organisations need to quickly recognise the current situation is unacceptable. We think it would be possible to develop post incident procedures that provide reassurance to families and the public that best evidence has been obtained and reassurance to officers that they will be protected from unfair treatment for just doing their difficult and dangerous jobs. We seek to work with ACPO and the Police Federation to do that.”
It is a well known fact that Police officers witness statements and other witness statements are obtained in very different ways, as acknowledged by the IPCC. There are a number of extremely obvious reasons for that and a couple of not so obvious reasons, all of which must be taken into consideration before calling for the practice to end.
Firstly, a number of people have said that Police witnesses should be treated no differently from any other witness. As Police officers, we are trained to take statements from witnesses and write our own, and obviously how much practice you get can affect the level of quality of a statement. When an incident occurs we don't get all the witnesses then sit them in a room on their own and ask them to write their own statements, if we did, the vast majority would be completely un-useable in a court and would be missing massive chunks of information as well as having irrelevant information, hearsay and time lines would be all over the place. When we take statements we have to cover rules established under the caselaw of R v Turnbull and follow the ADVOKATE acronym -
Amount of time the suspect was under observation
Distance between the suspect and the witness
Obstructions to view
Known or seen before
Any reason for remembering
Time elapsed between observation and identification
Error or material discrepancy in description
In addition to getting a full account of what happened, we interview the witness and ask probing and open questions to get specific details which can then in turn be expanded upon. A key area to completely breakdown in the recall is the sense of time and the order in which events occur. This can obviously damage the credibility of a witness if everything is later shown to be wrong and ripped to shreds in a court. It's not impossible to imagine a defence solicitor challenging a witness "Quite clearly this event happened before that one........ if you can't even get that bit right....... how reliable is the rest of your evidence?"
I have seen statements from PCSO'S that have been 10-15 lines long which I have then had to retake, expanding them to over 3-4 pages. It wasn't a failing on their part, just a lack of proper statement training, a lack of understanding of the chain of evidence or of identification requirements and a lack of training in criminal law such as offence wordings and points to prove. Considering that PCSO'S are at least regularly involved in Police incidents and occasionally have to give statements, if we had members of the public write their own following incidents they hardly ever deal with, they would for the most part, be worthless.
The complexity of the involvement or the type incident does change how much you can actually recall. Just walking down the street and seeing a shunt and a heated argument can last just as long as someone coming up to you, screaming in your face and demanding your wallet but your recall would be expected to be wildly different between the two. The more traumatic the incident the harder it is to get certain information, as soon as you get a raised heart rate and stress response kicks in the less your brain actually holds onto, especially if you haven't experienced it before. This is called perceptual distortion and is subject to an extensive body of research by psychologists and physiologists, I'll be putting a separate post up about it later on because it's too significant to be just a two or three liner but I've written a bit about it here.
When we write our own statements we very often write them together and get a brew or some food to eat at the same time as it's a good opportunity to get refs breaks. Because our statements are expected to not only present the incident as we saw it, but are basically the backbone of the file, they should contain all of the relevant data for the incident. This would include exact times, descriptions, relevant history, street names, callsigns, authorities, incident numbers etc, most of which we would not have to hand before or during the incident.
As I said earlier, one of the main things to go in memory immediately and soon after a traumatic event is the sense of time and order of events. Whereas we can interview a witness and expand on specific details to make sure the statement is accurate, it's extremely difficult to do this to yourself. Considering how many police officers we usually have on duty, it would be an incredibly enormous and wholly unjustifiable drain on resources to have to have another Police officer who wasn't involved in the incident to obtain our statements for us. There simply aren't enough Police officers to do that.
A decent statement takes an hour or so (at least) if it is a complex incident and you know nothing about it. For a shift of ten police officers each arresting one person every couple of days, most serious incidents happen around the same time (thanks kindly to Murphy's Law) and involve more than one officer, we'd need to increase the number of police officers by at least 3-5 just to take statements from other officers to allow the investigations to be completed expediently. In order to stop the extra officers from being deployed and tucked up with jobs they would have to be specifically for statement taking - so they might as well not be Police officers - but in today's bureaucratic world they would not be employed just to take statements. Heaven forbid they had a couple of days or even a few hours where they didn't actually do anything and just milled about, the fact that they would have to have other requirements in order to even justify their position means that they would run the risk of not being able to take statements immediately.
By sitting down and debriefing the incident and then writing our statements together we can get all of the other bits of information together that we need for the statement, tie up time lines and generally piece together the incident. I've no idea how many times I've been dealing with something and someone has suddenly popped up and then disappeared just as quickly. Gaps in memory and uncertainty about decisions made at incidents are proven triggers for post traumatic stress disorder and eliminating the causes as soon as possible helps to prevent this extremely damaging psychological injury. I wrote about this a bit more here.
The fact that we deal with arrests and violent incidents all the time reduces the influence of perceptual distortion thanks to stress familiarity but it doesn't extinguish it. A bog standard gobby drunk getting floored and cuffed after a short struggle is far from being on a par with someone trying to put a knife in your neck, or having to use extreme or even lethal force. Only by being able to properly debrief every incident are we able to deal with them, the severe pressures on our time such as dealing with calls and prisoners and subsequent admin mean that the only time we can do this practically is when we put our statements together.