Keen observers of UK policing issues will be forgiven for having missed one of the biggest stories of the year so far: the planned complete overhaul of the police watchdog, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), including the introduction of a national police ombudsman supported by regional ombudsmen.

Since the 12 August announcement the only media outlet to have reported on this is an online magazine for police that requires a subscription. A further Home Office review of the governance proposals due in the autumn was announced on the same day, but has also received no media attention.

That the much-criticised watchdog is proposing major structural changes should be cause for celebration. Its past failure to secure criminal convictions and disciplinary findings against the officers it is charged with overseeing is well documented, as is the disproportionate number of ex-police on its payroll. Indeed, a 2013 report by the home affairs committee found that the IPCC was so ineffective at doing its job that the public are often left to investigate their own cases. 

With this in mind, the lack of media attention surrounding the announcement comes as something of a surprise. Some of the proposals, which are largely intended to ensure high-quality independent investigations in the face of the watchdog’s rapid growth (it soon expects to see the number of investigations it conducts increase five-fold), are actually quite radical.

So how to explain the media blackout? Perhaps it is because the reform proposals did not emanate from one of the many critics of the IPCC, but from the watchdog itself, or perhaps it is a disturbing reflection of the media’s lack of understanding of the significance of the IPCC’s role in addressing public concerns about police misconduct.

Complainants need a police watchdog that does a really effective job of scrutinising the complaints system run by the police itself and of carrying out robust independent investigations into deaths in police custody, police shootings and serious or systemic misconduct allegations. This is essential for achieving accountability that deters wrongdoing and produces sustained learning to avoid repeated errors and malpractice. 

The detail of the proposed reforms, which emerged as part of the IPCC’s response to a Home Office review published in March 2015, requires public debate and close scrutiny, particularly as no one has yet to canvass the views of complainants regarding the model preferred by the IPCC. As far as I am aware, families bereaved following deaths in custody continue to harbour serious well-founded concerns about the quality of IPCC investigations, even though the IPCC claims that it has taken to heart the criticisms set out in the Casale review into the now well-known shortcomings of the August 2008 investigation into the death of Sean Rigg.

Who can say the IPCC won’t again fail to properly secure and analyse photographs from witnesses as it did in that case, where it failed to check the time difference between two photographs of police restraint of Mr Rigg, leaving the family to have to find this out at an inquest four years later.

Tony Herbert and Barbara Montgomery are two such concerned family members. Their son James was mentally ill and in need of medical attention but he was forcibly restrained on the street and then transported on a 45-minute journey under heavy restraint to a police station. His collapsed state on arrival was allegedly ignored and he went into cardiac arrest shortly thereafter.

Mr Herbert is puzzled by the IPCC’s statement that: ‘We have long argued that the police complaints system is too focused in apportioning blame… .’ As Mr Herbert rightly notes: ‘With around 1,000 deaths in police custody since 1990 and no successful prosecutions, it would appear to families and to impartial observers that the “complaints system” does not have a problem with blame, rather the opposite.’

The lack of consultation with Mr Herbert and other bereaved families is against a background of sidelining members of the public in the process leading up to these proposed reforms: you only need to look at the make-up of the eight-strong ‘challenge group’ whose ‘time, expertise and wisdom’ was drawn upon for the Home Office review.

The group, which included Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary, the North Yorkshire police and crime commissioner and a handful of Home and Cabinet Office officials hardly seems very challenging, and is certainly not representative of the public. Even those consulted as ‘stakeholders’ during the review were, with very few exceptions, aligned with the police or police representative bodies.

In short, the IPCC’s shortcomings from the complainants’ perspective were obviously ignored by the review, as otherwise it would never have included the remarkable conclusion at paragraph 79 that there was ‘no evidence to suggest that there are ongoing issues with the way that the IPCC conducts investigations and casework’. Too many complainants would beg to disagree with this.

Sadly, there continue to be examples of substandard investigations, with deep-seated problems ranging from inexperienced interviewers to a total lack of communication with the complainants throughout.

And so while in theory a much-needed restructuring of the watchdog is very welcome, without any input from the public it is difficult to be optimistic about the end result.

Those who can draw on their own experiences have a lot to offer and need to be heard and heeded, such as Mr Herbert when he says: ‘You can’t resurrect a dead person and so the corrective action that families and society needs to see is a transparent investigation that highlights everything that went wrong and that everyone involved is being held to account for what they did and did not do that caused or may have caused the death. Every fudged investigation is an opportunity lost to make changes.’

Will the proposals result in a significant qualitative change? Hopefully, that and the need for high-quality investigations will be the focus of the debate that will eventually take place. And since the IPCC is already vastly increasing its caseload, it is a debate that needs to happen sooner rather than later.

Daniel Machover, head of the civil department at Hickman and Rose