April 30, 2021

Real-life Line of Duty : How is police corruption tackled in the UK?

As we head towards the Line of Duty finale, you may well be wondering how anti-corruption within the police is enforced in the real world. Is there really an AC-12 (or anti-corruption) unit? *Spoiler alert * Could an ex-offender like Ryan Pilkington really be planted in the force by an organised crime group?

Trust and confidence in the police is vital, and has come under sharp scrutiny following recent clashes with police across the world.  In this post we’ll explore the measures taken to prevent corruption within the police and some of the laws in place to safeguard public trust in the force. 

How do the police prevent rogue individuals (like Line of Duty’s Ryan Pilkington!) from joining the force?

A thorough and effective vetting process is one of the key ways that the police can identify individuals that are unsuitable to work within the service.

 Each force has their own Force Vetting Unit (FVU) which must abide by the principles set out in the Vetting Code of Practice and by APP Vetting (which provides information on the correct vetting procedures) when vetting officers.

The vetting process involves disclosing information about the following:

  •  Family and friends
  •  Criminal convictions and cautions (including any received as a juvenile - so Pilkington wouldn’t have slipped through in real life!)
  •  Motoring offences
  •  Her Majesty’s Forces offences
  • Outstanding charges or court summons

Officers must pass a thorough vetting stage as part of their application process to join the force and they are vetted again when they are promoted to various managerial positions.  Generally, officers are required to update police records with relevant information every 4 to 5 years, although they are encouraged to declare information when it comes to light.

Is there really an AC-12 unit in the police?

Yes and no! Whilst there isn’t an ‘AC-12 unit’ by name, each police force has their own professional standards department (PSD). PSDs are responsible for upholding professional standards.

An important part of the PSD’s role is to investigate complaints against the professional conduct of police officers and police staff, including allegations of corruption and misconduct, made either by the public, or through internal reporting within the force.  

PSDs are also required by law to refer certain complaints and matters to the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC).  The IOPC is an independent body, responsible for overseeing the police complaints system in England and Wales. They investigate the most serious and sensitive incidents involving the police such as:

  •  Certain complaints, e.g. allegations of serious corruption or serious assault.
  •  Indications that police officers or staff have committed misconduct, e.g. suggestions that a criminal offence has been committed or a serious injury has been caused.
  •  If a person had direct or indirect contact with the police shortly before, or when, they were seriously injured or died, and the contact may have caused or contributed to the death or injury.

How does the law try to prevent ‘bent coppers’?!

The main legislation governing corruption and bribery in the UK is the Bribery Act 2010 (which doesn’t exclusively apply to police officers).

However, corruption can take many forms and often overlaps with other offences, such as fraud, and the improper exercise of power.  The following section will highlight a few of the key offences related to misconduct and corruption. 

Bribery Act 2010
  • Means officers cannot accept or offer bribes (like money or gifts) of any kind e.g. from criminals, witnesses or fellow officers!
  • Serious offences under Bribery Act could see a maximum penalty of 10 years' imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine.
Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015
  • Police officers cannot use their powers and privileges in a corrupt or improper manner.
  • An officer guilty of this offence can be fined, imprisoned for 14 years, or both!
‘Common law’ offence of misconduct in public office
  •   An officer commits this offence if they act or fail to act in a way which constitutes a breach of their duties e.g. an officer abusing their position of trust and taking advantage of vulnerable members of the public.
  •  This is a very serious offence which could lead to life imprisonment.
Common law offence of Perverting the Course of Justice
  • This offence covers any conduct that interferes with the course of justice e.g. using intimidation to stop a witness from giving evidence, giving false information or making a false allegation.
  • This is also a very serious offence which can lead to life imprisonment.

What happens to police officers if they’re suspected of corruption or a criminal offence?

Generally, if there is an allegation that an officer has committed a criminal offence or serious misconduct then this case will be referred to the IOPC. Examples of serious corruption includes allegations of:

  • Accepting a bribe from a criminal
  • Disclosing personal details of offenders, suspects or civilians
  • Falsification of records or witness statements and tampering with evidence
  • Abusing their position of trust for a sexual purpose
  • Stealing property while on duty
  • Misuse of police power for personal gain

On receipt of a referral, the IOPC will carry out their own investigation of the case and determine whether a criminal offence may have been committed.  If the IOPC believes that a criminal offence may have been committed, they will instruct the relevant PSD to bring disciplinary proceedings against the person involved and to refer the case to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

In cases of serious corruption where the offender has committed a criminal offence, the police will hold a gross misconduct hearing.  This means that the officer has been judged to have committed a breach of the Standards of Professional Behaviour so serious that dismissal would be justified.  In such cases, the officer in question will likely be dismissed from the force without notice and they will also be arrested if they are found to be guilty by the criminal court. 

Anti-corruption work in practice: Recent and famous examples 

How do all these rules and procedures work in practice? Here are some examples of real life corruption cases within the police and how they were/are being dealt with. 

Officer associated with organised crime group (OCG) activities
  • Greater Manchester Police (GMP) recently suspended an officer who was arrested on suspicion of five offences after work by the GMP’s PSD.  
  • The officer was arrested on suspicion of knowing, suspecting and participating in the activities of an organised crime group, misconduct in office and conspiracy to supply a class B controlled drug, amongst other offences.  
  • The case was referred to the IOPC who ordered a local investigation of the case by the GMP’s PSD where the investigation is currently ongoing.
Alleged corruption in the Metropolitan Police Service’s PSD.
  • Just last year the IOPC concluded an investigation into corruption within the Directorate of Professional Standards (DPS), which is the Metropolitan Police Service’s PSD responsible for preventing corruption.
  • The individuals were alleged to have abused their position to affect ongoing investigations.
  • Although the allegations were disproved, the IOPC investigation led to internal changes in the DPS’ working practices.
The Birmingham Six
  • In 1974, six men were arrested after two bombs were set off, killing 21 people and injuring hundreds. 
  • Four men claimed that the police forced them into signing confessions by physically beating them, even though they pleaded innocent. 
  • They were sentenced to life imprisonment but their convictions were overturned in 1991 when the forensic evidence used to convict them was found to be unreliable. 
  • Three officers were charged with perjury and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, but were not prosecuted. 
The Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven
  • Following pub bombings, the Guildford Four were arrested, and subjected to coercion from the police, which involved physical and mental torture, confessing to the bombings.
  • All four were convicted for murder and other charges, and sentenced to life imprisonment.
  • The Maguire Seven were also wrongly convicted of possessing a substance used to make bombs during the investigation of the Guildford Four.  
  • The Guildford Four’s charges were later cleared after the disclosure of exonerating evidence which included an imprisoned IRA member admitting guilt for the bombings. The Maguire Seven’s charges were also cleared after issues were found with the forensic evidence used to convict them.  Sadly, neither the bombings nor the wrongful imprisonments led to convictions.

Steps in the right direction?

Whilst there is still evidence of corruption in the police today, the legislative and structural reform that has taken place over the last couple of decades has brought us closer to extinguishing corruption from the UK’s Police Services. Hopefully one day, high profile police corruption cases can be confined solely to our screens and the work of the AC-12 team! 

With thanks to James Tate for this post.

Your rights straight in your inbox

Each week we summarise the most important issues that affect your rights at work, home, in the shops etc.
You'll basically be a lawyer from our newsletter alone...