There have been “several cases” over the past five years when Avon and Somerset Police officers were found guilty of gross misconduct but continued working. The chief constable of the police force said several officers have been given written warnings instead of being sacked.
Police chiefs have faced questions about internal vetting and disciplinary practices in Avon and Somerset, in light of shocking crimes committed by serving officers in the Metropolitan Police. They said vetting practices are now being reviewed and improved nationally.
Avon and Somerset Police Chief Constable Sarah Crew said that all of the gross misconduct hearings she has chaired resulted in officers losing their jobs, either through resigning or being dismissed. But some gross misconduct hearings leave officers still working in the service.
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During a performance and accountability board on Tuesday, February 7, Police and Crime Commissioner Mark Shelford pressed for answers on why officers are allowed to keep working after being found guilty of gross misconduct. He added he will soon ask for figures on how many officers in Avon and Somerset are still working, despite misconduct rulings.
He said: “Why are there still officers serving who have been disciplined for misconduct? I’m not going to ask you today, but I will ask you to come back to one of our future performance and accountability boards, to look at the numbers of those officers who are still serving in Avon and Somerset, to be able to give the public some confidence about that.”
Chief Constable Crew said: “I’ve been involved in chairing quite a number of those hearings now, and I believe the threshold that I’ve seen is at the right level. The challenge comes when the chair discerns that it’s gross misconduct, and it’s found and proven, but they don’t dismiss. That makes it very difficult to manage the risk of that individual.
“Many times that will trigger a vetting review and the person may not be able to actually do the job that they’re doing, because their vetting doesn’t allow them to do it, but they’re still in the organisation. I’ve looked at all of the gross misconduct hearings that have happened over the last five years, and in all of those chaired by a chief constable, there has been an outcome of dismissal, or they would have been dismissed had they still been serving.
“But there have been several cases over that time, when the panel has been chaired by an independent, where a written warning was the sanction. I’m not saying that’s right or wrong in the circumstances, I’m not judging. But it is challenging sometimes, in some of those cases, to be able to redeploy that officer and manage the risk that they pose.”
Police vetting includes checking employment history, signs of financial vulnerability like debts, past allegations or convictions, social media use, and any relatives and associates who may pose a risk. This process is supposed to stop officers from working in the service who could pose a risk to public safety or to public confidence in the police.
In November last year, inspectors found it was “too easy for the wrong people to join and stay in the police”. His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services said national police vetting standards were not high enough, and recommended police forces improve their vetting of new and current officers.
According to Deputy Chief Constable Nikki Watson, Avon and Somerset Police regularly checks the background of serving officers for any potential risks. This includes when changing role, or even changing address. She added every officer and staff member will be checked on a national police database, to make sure the force was “leaving no stone unturned”.
She said: “There are quite a few ways we can review vetting or we can complete health checks on members of staff where they have a change in circumstances. So for example, if somebody changes some of their information on our system, such as changing their address, there could be a proactive follow-up to investigate whether there might be any particular reasons that give us cause for concern.
“There will be times when officers and staff are revetted. Everybody will be revetted following a misconduct outcome. Potentially if you had a promotion or a change in role, that would trigger a revetting. There are also regular revettings during your service and the frequency of those are being reviewed nationally.
“The thing about vetting is that it is a snapshot in time, and we need to be very vigilant and conscious all the time. Every officer, every member of staff in the constabulary will be checked through the police national database to make sure that there’s nothing that’s happened elsewhere in the country that we’re not aware of, leaving no stone unturned to make sure we know everything about all of our members of staff.”
If concerns are raised about the conduct of a police officer, the police force can carry out covert checks in a number of ways, including watching footage from body-worn cameras, listening to radio communications, and monitoring their use of phones and computers. The Deputy Chief Constable gave an example where an officer lost their job after using “unacceptable language” on a police computer.
She said: “One case resulted in an accelerated hearing where an officer was dismissed, and this was following some IT-based enquiries. We could see that the officer was typing unacceptable language in descriptions. That wasn’t appropriate and the officer ended up losing their job.”
According to the Police Conduct Regulations, "misconduct" means a breach of the Standards of Professional Behaviour serious enough to justify disciplinary action, while "gross misconduct" means a breach of standards serious enough to justify dismissal.