Julia Mulligan, the area’s first ever Police and Crime Commissioner, has been in post for just more than a year. The former Craven district councillor was voted in with a less than 15 per cent turnout but despite the seeming apathy on behalf of the people of North Yorkshire, her role is one of great power – from the setting of police priorities and budgets to the ability to hire and fire the force’s chief constable. Here, Mrs Mulligan, who lives just outside Skipton, looks back at her first year in office and to the months ahead
Over the past 12 months, countless column inches and hours of airtime have been devoted to the so-called ‘Plebgate’ row.
It is noteworthy that most commentary has focused on the political ramifications and wider implications for police integrity and, in particular the Independent Police Complaints Commission.
Occasionally commentators – and indeed Andrew Mitchell himself – have asked that if such a thing could happen to a senior government minister, then what chance would a youth in Brixton have?
I want to focus on the “what chance” people, ordinary members of the public whose dealings with the law have turned into campaigns to clear their names, get justice for mistakes made, or simply receive an apology for poor service.
People like the mother whose son – a former soldier – was found dead after consuming a fatal dose of drugs and whose questions about the circumstances of his death remain unanswered.
The brothers caught up in a violent fight – after which the CCTV footage was lost.
A mother arrested for attempting to murder her severely disabled daughter and being held on police bail for three months without charge, who two years on, is still fighting to clear her name and rebuild her family.
Or the Asian couple traumatised by months of racial abuse at the hands of neighbours about which too little too late was done.
Mislabelled in my view as “low level” complaints, these experiences and others like them cause untold misery and anxiety to hundreds of people up and down the country.
Since being elected I’ve had a steady stream of people turning to me for support, so much so that I have employed people to help them – something that police authorities rarely considered.
Some of the individuals coming to my surgeries have mental health problems; they have rejected the healthcare system and are now desperately casting around for help.
Many MPs and local councillors will know exactly what I’m talking about because the very same people are stepping through their doors too – and to my mind, we do not have adequate ways of supporting them.
Others, like the four examples I described earlier, are at the end of their tether, looking for answers, for apologies, for wrongs to be righted and very often to do all they can to ensure that what happened to them won’t happen to anyone else. But of course we live in the real world and this can’t always be the case.
People do bad things and our police must be able to do their job. And we must be able to trust them to do it.
So let me say now, before I go any further that the vast majority of police officers act with the utmost integrity and professionalism. We have one of the very best police services in the world and I thank every officer and every member of police staff for their work in often, very difficult circumstances.
Looking at the numbers can help us get a more rounded perspective.
The police recorded 3.7 million crimes in England and Wales last year.
The latest figures available from the IPCC suggest the total number of complaints across the country was just over 30,000, which represents approximately 0.8 percent of total crimes.
Of those, only about 2,350 or 0.06 percent had any involvement with the IPCC.
The vast majority of complaints are handled at a local level – the so-called “low level” complaints, experienced by “what chance” people.
I am supportive of the Government in providing more resources to the IPCC because it needs them – not just because of Hillsborough and other serious cases, but also because I have constituents waiting 36 weeks for a caseworker which is unacceptable.
However, we must not strengthen the IPCC at the expense of “what chance” people. Everyone deserves the very same chance to have their complaint dealt with properly and independently.
For who are we to judge what is serious or sensitive?
I believe that to help restore trust, the principle of independence must run through the system. This does not mean everything going to the IPCC, for I would question the value for money of such a move. Instead, now is the time to innovate. And we need to begin with the people who need the help – the public.
The current system is convoluted, painfully slow, bureaucratic and inflexible.
Put yourself in the shoes of someone who feels the police have treated them poorly or unfairly. You’re wary in any event because of the experience you’ve had.
And then you come up against the current process, which very often leaves people feeling like it’s there to protect the interests of the police, rather than support members of public.
All of this undermines trust yet further, in an atmosphere when people are already questioning the integrity of the police because of high profile national scandals.
It’s a double-whammy that undermines confidence in our otherwise excellent police service yet further. Quite frankly, the police deserve better and so do the people we serve.
When people come to me asking for help saying they don’t trust the police to investigate themselves, sadly there is very little I can currently say or do.
I can defend the integrity of the police, which I do – especially because in North Yorkshire we have one of the most respected professional standards departments in the country – but fundamentally the system is flawed.
The Government is taking action – to improve the capacity and increase the powers of the IPCC.
The College of Policing is introducing a new Code of Ethics for police officers, which senior policing figures have said is long overdue.
However, we cannot leave it up to Government to take action. Police and Crime Commissioners work in local communities and many of us have a strong desire to see change at a grassroots level.
We have been elected to act in the interests of the public and to hold the police to account – and we are doing just that. Together, across political parties and groups, Police and Crime Commissioners are working with government to look at how the system might change.
We believe it must be built on the needs of the public, rather than around the interests of the police.
There should be a greater emphasis on learning lessons and improving service rather than focusing principally on individual officer discipline.
And the law should be changed to allow local investigations to be conducted independently of local chief constables.
We are also considering how to introduce a local appeals process, again independent of the chief constable.
We also believe there is potential to use our commissioning powers to develop new support, advocacy and mediation services that will help increase confidence in the integrity of local police and cultivate a greater sense of inherent “fairness”.
Brick by brick we can rebuild broken bridges. However, one issue transcends all others: police culture.
Which brings me back full circle to ‘Plebgate’ and the wider issue of police integrity.
We are living in a different world to ten or 15 years ago. The word of those in authority is no longer accepted without question and this includes the police.
It is time the “silverbacks” of the policing world stopped beating their chests in defence of the status quo and embraced the new world of openness and transparency that spans much of the public sector.
It is therefore good to see a new generation of police leaders coming up through the ranks, who absolutely “get” what’s needed.
And all of us – PCCs and chiefs alike – who fundamentally believe in openness and transparency need to push the boundaries and vested interests at both a national and local level.
Integrity is the police’s single most valuable asset for without it there cannot be trust. Changing cultures isn’t easy, mistakes will be made, and it will probably take longer than we wish. But the intention and direction of travel is clear.