Why don’t we complain about our police force?

In England and Wales in 2017, the public complained about one in every six cops. For convenience, I will (wrongly) refer to the two states as “the UK”.

In Malaysia, according to the Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission’s 2017 report, the public submitted 440 complaints about cops. The figure for the UK is 34,103 complaints.

There were 222,155 police employees in the UK in 2017. I’ll assume there were 125,000 Malaysian police employees in 2017.

Doing the maths shows that there were 3.5 complaints per 1,000 cops in Malaysia and 154 complaints per 1,000 cops (1:6) in the UK.

Why is the rate of complaints about cops 44 times higher in the UK?

I’d say it’s because the EAIC, despite existing for 10 years, has been unsuccessful in persuading the public to complain about the police.

According to the IPCMC bill tabled in Parliament on Friday, the EAIC is to become the Independent Police Complaints OF Misconduct Commission.

I stress “of” because many complaints received, both by the EAIC and in the UK, are not complaints of misconduct. They are complaints of dissatisfaction with the police.

The EAIC does not give a breakdown for the police, but we can estimate that complaints of police misconduct add up to about 120 complaints. The corresponding figure for the UK is about 15,000 complaints of misconduct – about 70 times higher, after adjusting for the number of employees.

The IPCMC must use complaints to clean up the police force. It must ensure that errant officers who give the force a bad name are dealt with, just as the inspector-general of police (IGP) has vowed. The EAIC complaint data is of little use to the IGP.

Not only has the EAIC failed to significantly raise the complaint rate, it has also done poorly in handing investigations.

It 2017, the EAIC opened 108 investigation papers (IPs). It “solved” 32 IPs. The outcomes were recommendations of warning letters for four IPs and disciplinary actions for four IPs. There were no recommendations for prosecution. The report doesn’t say whether the recommendations were enforced.

Now let’s consider the UK.

Complaints “made by members of the public, relate to the conduct of people serving with the police, or to the direction and control (how the force is run) of a police force”.

This is the definition of a complaint:

A complaint is an expression of dissatisfaction by a member of the public about the conduct of a person serving with the police. This could, for example, be about the way the person has been treated or the service he or she has received. A complaint … can simply be a statement of dissatisfaction.

In 2016/17, IPCC registered 34,103 public complaints about the police. The complaints amounted to 63,752 allegations. Of these, 60,249 allegations were “finalised” as follows:

Forty-four percent (26,365) were investigated and communicated to the cops. Forty-two percent (25,215) were locally resolved and communicated to the cops. Fourteen percent (8,669) were withdrawn, discontinued or dispensed.

“Locally resolved” is applied to allegations where “the conduct being complained about, even if proven, would not justify criminal or disciplinary proceedings against the person being complained about”.

It is important to notice that the handling of complaints is principally the responsibility of the police, using guidelines set by the IOPC, monitored by the IOPC and audited by the IOPC. The IOPC directly investigates only the most serious and sensitive cases – 590 cases in 2016/17 (IPCC).

Note: For 2016/17 the UK watchdog was known as the Independent Police Complaints Commission, IPCC. It is now known as the IOPC, Independent Office of Police Conduct.

Now, I’ll sum up with three observations.

First, complaints are normal in the service sector – yes, the police provide a service. An effective complaint system will register large numbers of complaints. Most complaints don’t have serious consequences.

Second, what’s important is that officers know the public can complain about them and will do so because all complaints will be reviewed and investigated. (The public will complain if they believe the complaints will be acted upon and complainants won’t be targeted.)

Third, the time will come when serious misconduct is rare. In the last three years, only five police officers in UK were dismissed for misconduct.

The IPCMC must educate both the police and the public that dissatisfaction is normal. It must also end impunity by ensuring errant officers are disciplined.

It is important to ask why the EAIC has done so badly with complaints and what changes will make it more effective.

To succeed, the IPCMC will need “teeth” – adopting the MACC model for empowering officers is one solution. It will need a larger budget than the EAIC (RM8 million in 2017). It will need much political support because results will be gradual.

In 2017, about 30,000 UK cops received the outcomes of investigations against them. What will the figure be for Malaysian cops in 2021?

Rama Ramanathan is the spokesman for Citizens Against Enforced Disappearances (CAGED).

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.