How effective is the Police Complaints Unit?

The police force has often come under fire by some members of the public citing abuse. But what redress does the public have against police officers they believe have mistreated them or broken the law in some way? This reporter decided to take a look at how the Police Complaints Unit operates and whether it is actually as ineffective as some have suggested.

Acting Assistant Superintendent of Police in charge of the Complaints Unit, Severin Moncherry along with Acting Inspector Benson Deterville gave an insight into the operations and functions of the department.

The Police Complaints Act was passed in 2003 and subsequently came into force in 2004 which resulted in the formation of the Police Complaints Unit.  This unit is set apart from the others because of the nature of its work. The Act specifically calls for a watchdog body to ensure accountability.  Thus was born the Police Complaints Commission (PCC), currently headed by retired Justice Suzie d’Auvergne.

The Commission is an independent body comprised of five appointed civilian members—two nominees by the Chief Justice, two by the Minister responsible for the police and one from the Commissioner of Police.  The role of the PCC is to ensure that complaints by the public against the police are addressed in an expeditious manner in accordance with the Police Complaints Act.  The powers of the Complaints Commission include having a final say on whether an officer will face disciplinary action, requesting additional information pertaining to the complaint and to ensure the impartiality of the investigation carried out by the Complaints Unit.

Under this new system of dealing with complaints against the police, the unit is charged with handling these claims with a degree of transparency.  The unit is currently headed by Ag ASP Moncherry who has a team on one Ag Inspector, two Acting Sergeants and one Corporal.

A complaint can be made about any officer regardless of rank.  However, should the rank be above that of the officer in charge of the Complaints Unit, the Commissioner of Police will appoint an officer with a higher rank than that of the officer accused who will submit the completed file to the Complaints Commission.

The Unit deals with between fifteen to twenty complaints monthly.  At least half of the claims are substantiated or have merit.  When the unit was initially formed, there were at least 200 complaints in the first three years.  That number has since decreased.  Moncherry and Deterville assert that the biggest issue the unit faces in advancing a complaint is the uncooperative complainant.  Moncherry went further to reason that the decrease in the number of complaints may be because officers have changed the way the deal with people.

Said Moncherry, “There is more awareness by police officers.  They may have realized the things they may have done before, they can’t continue do it.”

Is the unit a front for police cover ups or facilitating cover ups?

Moncherry responded, “I have not known of cases of personal bias.  The persons at this unit investigate with an openly.  They forget about their police cap because your reputation is at stake.  The file does not stay with the police.  After our investigation, the file is sent to the [Complaints] Commission and they decide what happens with the file-whether it should be sent back to us for further investigation, whether the complaint should be dismissed or whether the officer in question will be reprimanded.”

There are several ways to address a complaint against an officer.  A complainant can choose to get a lawyer and pursue an independent criminal/civil case against the officer.  The complainant can approach the Police Complaints Commission where the report is sent to the Commissioner of Police then referred to the unit.  The third option is to go directly to the Complaints Unit.

Should a complainant opt for the latter, the process is as follows: full out a report, the secretary of the Complaints Commission makes a copy of the report and sends it to the Complaints Commission’s officer.  The complainant and any other witness are interviewed.  A final report is compiled and submitted to the Commissioner of Police.  A copy is sent to the Complaints Commission.  The Police Commissioner reviews the file and can agree/disagree with the Unit’s recommendations.  If the Police Commissioner disagrees the file is sent back to the unit.  The Complaints Commission also reviews the file and has the same liberties of the Police Commission.  However, the Complaints Commission, upon reviewing the file, can discard the unit’s recommendations and make its own.  The Complaints Commission’s recommendation supersedes all others.

After the file is reviewed and a decision to pursue disciplinary action is taken, the Commissioner of Police has to fill out a disciplinary form. The Police Commissioner will assign a Gazetted Officer (ASP and higher) to adjudicate the matter.  The adjudicator carries out the functions of a magistrate in the lower court.  Currently, Ag Superintendent Alphonso Francis is the designated adjudicator.

The police officer against whom a complaint is lodged is called a defaulter.  At this stage the defaulter will be served with the file.  The defaulter will then attend what is considered police court, known as a Disciplinary Hearing or the Orderly Room.  The defaulter is prohibited from bringing a lawyer to the Orderly Room, however, he/she can bring a friend, usually a fellow police officer.  An officer is assigned to present the case against the defaulter.  An Orderly Room trial can take anywhere from a day to a week depending on the witnesses.

The outcome of the Orderly Room could be as follows: fine(s) to be paid, reduction in rank, dismissal(s) or charges for a criminal offense are laid.  In the event charges are laid, the officer will be taken before a magistrate to initiate criminal proceedings.  An officer found liable in Orderly Room can appeal the decision to the Commissioner of Police who then makes a determination on the way forward.

Should a complainant decide not to follow through with a matter, he/she can request the matter be informally disposed of by the Commissioner of Police.  Both the complainant and the officer must agree to this, for example the complainant may request an apology for an officer’s action and the officer grants that request. Admissions on the officer’s part in the Informal cannot be used later if a complainant decides to continue pursuing the matter.

Any person who is dissatisfied with the outcome and recommendations of the investigation may apply in writing within 30 days to the Complaints Commission to have the matter reviewed.

However, police shooting, fatal or not, follow a different procedure to other complaints.  All police shootings are investigated by the Criminal Investigations Department unless the officer in question is from the CID or Major Crime Department or is of a higher rank than the officers within CID/Major Crime.  Under these circumstances, the Commissioner of Police will appoint an officer to lead the investigation.

Having completed the investigation into a police shooting, the file, without recommendations, is sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions.  The DPP decides whether to charge the officer or commence an Inquest.

If the officer is charged then the matter goes through the court system.  In the event of an Inquest a Coroner (magistrate) records evidence (witnesses and physical evidence) and a jury decides whether an officer is liable.  If the officer is deemed liable then he/she is indicted and the case is sent to the High Court.

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