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[This is a general guide. Please check the IPCC website for updates and changes. This article updated July 2012]
If you have a bad experience with police, you may want to make a formal complaint. (There are other actions you can take, which are discussed below.) Information on how to do this can be found at the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) website.
This guide is based on material posted on the Police Complaints Authority (PCA) website, which was replaced by the IPCC in 2004.
When should you make a complaint?
As a member of the public, you can make a complaint about the conduct of a police officer towards yourself if you think you have good reason, or you can complain on someone else's behalf if you have their written authorisation.
You can make a complaint if you think a police officer has behaved incorrectly or unfairly.
For example, if you think an officer has:
been rude to you;
used excessive force;
abused your rights; or
arrested you unlawfully.
You can make a complaint as a member of the public if you have witnessed police officers behaving badly, even if you were not the direct victim of their behaviour.
Your complaint should say
when it happened;
what was done;
what was said;
where the witnesses can be contacted; and
what proof, if any, exists of any damage or injury
Unless there are exceptional circumstances, you should make your complaint within 12 months of the incident.
Get the details
If something happens that you may want to complain about, you'll want evidence, particularly if the incident is serious enough to lead to possible criminal charges.
You don't have to make the decision about complaining straight away.
You should record the time and place where the incident occurred as accurately as possible.
Record the identity of the police officers involved. If they are in uniform, take the identity numbers from their shoulder badges. If they are in a car or van, record the vehicle registration number or the large identity number on the roof.
Get names and contact details of witnesses
Look for anything else that may support your allegation. Has the incident been caught on CCTV? Was anyone filming or taking photos at the time?
Find out whether anyone else wants to complain about the same incident. You will be able to corroborate each others' version of events, and you may find it easier to go through the process with someone else. Write down as much as you can remember of what happened as soon after the event as possible. Ask your witnesses to do the same. (But write them up separately. Witness statements that look as if they've been prepared together will be less impressive.)
If you have been injured, get a doctor to look at you as soon as possible - you should do this for your own sake anyway. Take down the name and contact details of the doctor and the time you were seen. If your injuries are visible, photograph them before the marks fade. Ask the doctor to make a written report on your injuries for you to use.
How to complain
If you would like legal advice or assistance making a complaint you can contact an organisation such as your local Citizens Advice Bureau.
Making your complaint via the IPCC
The IPCC say that it may be up to 4 - 5 weeks before a complaint can be processed.
Why do it
Don't let anyone tell you it isn't worth complaining. The police take complaints very seriously.
By complaining, even about minor matters such as rudeness, you give senior officers the opportunity to give a message about what is acceptable and professional.
You also give those officers a message about what the community regards as acceptable from the force they manage.
And if what has happened to you is really serious, you may help to get rid of a thug or a racist or a criminal, who should be behind bars rather than in a police uniform. This could be stressful, prolonging an incident that you'd rather forget, but you may protect someone else.
Alternatives to formal complaint
Even if there are no grounds for a formal complaint, it may be worth kicking up a fuss. (This may be particularly useful if you have witnessed something where, because you were not directly affected, you feel reluctant to make a formal complaint, but you still feel unhappy about the way you have seen police officers behave.)
With a more minor complaint, such as when a police officer has been rude to you, an offer from a senior officer to deal with the matter informally should be considered seriously. A formal investigation is a long drawn-out process; it's worth avoiding if you just want an officer told off.
You can write to your MP, without asking them to make a formal complaint.
You can write directly to your local chief constable (or Borough Commander if in London), describing the incident and asking such questions as 'Is this normal practice?'. They have to answer such letters, which means somebody has to investigate what happened.
How are complaints investigated?
A special complaints and discipline department of the police service concerned will record a complaint from a member of the public if the complaint alleges misconduct by a particular officer or officers. The department will then investigate the complaint, possibly under the supervision of one of the Members of the independent PCA.
Mandatory and voluntary supervision
Some complaints must by referred to the independent PCA for supervision of the investigation.
When the alleged conduct of an officer has resulted in death or serious injury to some other person, the case must be referred to the Authority (Police Act 1996 section 70).
Additionally, police must refer any allegations involving:
assault occasioning actual bodily harm;
an offence under section 1 of the Prevention of Corruption Act 1906; or
any serious arrestable offence, such as causing death by reckless driving.
Under section 71 of the Police Act 1996, chief police officers can voluntarily refer any matter for supervised investigation that they feel has sufficient 'gravity' or exceptional circumstances surrounding it for it to warrant criminal proceedings or formal action for misconduct.
If a complaint contains allegations of criminal behaviour or there is a possibility of criminal charges being brought as a result of the investigation, the police service will refer the complaint to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). When the complaint has been investigated, the investigating officer will submit a final report to the CPS. It is then up to them to decide whether criminal charges should be brought against any officers.
When the complaint contains an allegation of a criminal nature, for example, of assault, then it must be sent to the CPS for their advice.
Complaints that do not contain allegations of a criminal nature do not have to be sent to the CPS. These cases remain at the PCA where Members review them to see if any officers have breached the Code of Conduct.
Section 75(3) of the Police Act 1996:
"If the Chief Officer determines that the report indicates that a criminal offence may have been committed by a member of the police service for his area, he shall send a copy of the report to the Director of Public Prosecutions."
Independent Police Complaints Commission
criminal justice act
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