Exclusive: ‘We have seen a rising trend in police officers requesting anonymity. Anonymity is becoming the default,’ says head of Inquest
Police officers accused of domestic abuse and sexual offences are using “defensive tactics” to dodge responsibility and safeguard the police’s reputation, the head of Inquest has warned.
Deborah Coles, director of the charity which looks into state-related deaths, said growing numbers of officers facing allegations are being granted anonymity in misconduct hearings.
Speaking to The Independent in an exclusive interview, Ms Coles, who works closely with the police in inquests and police misconduct hearings, criticised a “disturbing trend of anonymity” as she warned police misconduct hearings are “shrouded in secrecy”.
Her comments were echoed by both the Victims Commissioner and the Shadow Minister for Policing and the Fire Service who also weighed in on the issue in separate interviews.
Ms Coles, who has been the director of Inquest for over 30 years, said: “In our work, we have seen a rising trend in police officers requesting anonymity. Anonymity is becoming the default. It is being granted in high-profile cases.
“This fuels anger and suspicion the police are trying to deflect responsibility for their actions. The lack of candour, cooperation, and obfuscation, and attempts to frustrate the legal process are tactics to deflect attention from and defend the reputation of the police.
“It is very difficult for families – let alone members of the public and even members of the press – to know where they’re taking place and how to attend police misconduct hearings.”
Ms Coles noted when officers who stand accused are granted anonymity, they are simply known as Officer X or Y, as she said being able to see the person accused is an integral part of conducting a “democratic inquiry”.
She argued anonymity infringes the spirit of an “open and transparent investigation” as well as “hindering” scrutiny of police officers and “undermining accountability processes”.
Ms Coles added: “We increasingly see defensive, combative tactics by police lawyers”.
Too often individual police forces allow officers to carry on with their duties when facing misconduct hearings or inquests despite serious concerns about their conduct, Ms Coles said. “It is not acceptable. In some cases officers are getting promoted before the hearing,” she added.
Her comments come after it recently surfaced half of more than 40 misconduct outcome notices published involving officers and staff working in England and Wales in the past month were anonymised.
Some 645 police misconduct hearings were held privately since 2018, according to figures gathered by The Times in October. This directly contravenes Home Office guidance which states hearings should be transparent “where possible”, but not in cases where revealing the officer’s identity could harm the accused’s wellbeing, national security, or court proceedings.
Dame Vera Baird QC, Victims Commissioner for England and Wales, told The Independent: “It is a worry from a victim’s perspective. How do I know, if I ring in, as I am beaten up by my partner, I am not speaking with the officer I read about who has been accused of misconduct. What is the point of keeping this secret from the public?
“To protect the reputation of officers? To hide the detail? It is worrying on behalf of victims – you need to have confidence someone coming to help you is trustworthy. There is a reluctance to rigorously take on wrongdoing. What you would want is the opposite.”
Dame Vera, who was Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria Police from 2012 to 2019, said she is concerned some misconduct hearings are likely to involve domestic abuse or “seriously victimising” an individual or engaging in a relationship with a vulnerable victim.
She noted most cases where police officers are accused of misconduct never make it to be investigated by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) and are instead looked into by officers in the same force. Dame Vera hit out at this – arguing officers must be investigated by a separate independent force to avoid a “conflict of approach and interest”.
“There is often rivalry between neighbouring police forces,” she added. “That is healthy to me – for someone who sees you as a rival to investigate you is better than someone who is sympathetic.”
Her comments come as the Met Police has faced fierce criticism for failing to tackle violence against women and girls in the wake of Sarah Everard’s tragic murder and rape by a serving Metropolitan Police officer.
Wayne Couzens, who wielded Covid lockdown restrictions to falsely arrest the 33-year-old marketing executive before kidnapping, raping and strangling her, was sentenced to a whole-life prison term in September.
More than 150 women have contacted the Centre for Women’s Justice, a legal charity that tackles violence against women, about police-perpetrated domestic abuse they claim to have experienced.
Sarah Jones MP, Labour MP for Croydon Central and Shadow Minister for Policing and the Fire Service, said: ”It is hugely disappointing to hear that so many hearings are still being held in private – it must be every police force’s priority to maintain the highest levels of accountability and openness.”
A spokesperson for the IOPC, which carries out police misconduct hearings which are not dealt with by the force in which the officer works, said: “Police accountability is critical to public confidence in policing and the public expect that if there is wrongdoing or learning, it will be identified and acted upon.
“In the year April 2020 to March 2021, 79 per cent of misconduct proceedings, carried out as a result of IOPC investigations, led to gross misconduct or misconduct being found proven.“
The representative noted “hearings are organised by the force led by an independent legally qualified chair. It is that panel, not the IOPC, which is responsible for determining whether misconduct matters are found proven and what any appropriate sanction may be.”