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7 August, 2016

Customer service

Blog post for Harrogate Advertiser - August 2016

This week, members of the Home Office team in charge of revising the police complaints system visited North Yorkshire. On the face of it, this probably doesn’t seem like an exciting event. But to me it was. Since my first week in office, back in November 2012, I’ve been championing reform and now it’s finally happening. Not quite as fast as I would like, nor is it the root and branch overhaul that’s really needed, but real improvements are on the way.

At the moment, I employ a full time caseworker to support the public and seek answers from the police when service is not as good as we would all like. But this is an informal arrangement with the Chief Constable, because despite being your elected policing representative, I largely have no formal role in the current system. Except for the most serious and sensitive cases, complaints are handled by the police. In other words, the police investigate the police.

In North Yorkshire, the complaints team, otherwise known as the ‘Professional Standards Department’ is good. In the vast majority of cases, they take complaints extremely seriously and investigate them thoroughly. And whilst there is always scope to improve, North Yorkshire Police is towards the top of policing’s customer service league tables, at least in the satisfaction stakes.  Police officers, staff and volunteers do a great job here, often in difficult circumstances. When circumstances allow, policing in North Yorkshire is also accompanied by a smile, sensitivity and common sense, which I know is appreciated.

However, despite the good work done, complaints are made.  Yes, some are unfounded or unfair, but most are understandable and involve reasonable cause for concern. And unfortunately, unlike scions of good customer service such as John Lewis, First Direct and M&S, policing culture and process can struggle to deal with them.

This isn’t unique to our area.  The police complaints system is mired in bureaucracy, legal rabbit holes and confusing jargon. Through little fault of those providing the service itself, there is no question to my mind that current system is broken. And there’s nothing quite like marking your own homework.

However, unfortunately the police are pretty much the only people who can investigate the police. They have the skills, expertise and access to important systems and information.  There is also a myth I need to bust.  Despite its’ high profile, the Independent Police Complaints Commission only deals with about 1-2% of all police complaints.  Given all this, to my mind getting local complaints right couldn’t be more important. And for that to happen, Police and Crime Commissioners, whose job it is to serve the public, need to be involved.

By the summer of 2018, PCCs will be able to grasp the nettle. Not all want to do so, but I will be taking up this opportunity to better serve the public as soon as I can. Not only will the new system mitigate the effects of the police investigating the police, it also looks set to strip out much of the mind-bending bureaucracy.  This is good for the public, but also for the police officers being complained about.  A simpler, shorter, fairer process is good for everyone.

At the same time, I also want to inject a serious dose of ‘customer service ethos’ into police complaints.  My future team will always be happy to speak on the phone, look to resolve complaints there and then when possible, and whilst we can’t offer replacement goodies like John Lewis, there will be scope to put right what’s gone wrong. And when appropriate, apologise. It may seem a simple thing, but holding ones hands up and saying ‘sorry’ does not come easy to the police’s legal team.

It is also clear to me that until there is trust in the way the police handle complaints, trust in policing more widely will be limited. This extends to learning lessons. When things do go wrong, most people tell me that they simply want an apology and for the same mistake never to be repeated. At present, the wood is often not seen for the tress, learning lost in the inflexibility and complexity of ‘the system’.  I want to turn that around so the public can really shape policing here in North Yorkshire.