Avon & Somerset’s top police officer admits she has concerns about how some cops are allowed to continue working for the force, following a damning report into national vetting failures.
A government watchdog found that potentially thousands of recruits across the country should have failed crucial checks and concluded a culture of misogyny and predatory behaviour against women was prevalent in many forces.
The report by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS), ordered after Sarah Everard’s kidnap, rape and murder in March 2021 by serving Met Police officer Wayne Couzens, did not include Avon & Somerset in its investigation.
But Chief Constable Sarah Crew says that while initial screening for new recruits in the force is “strong”, she is “uncomfortable” with both the appeals process and misconduct hearings when the outcome is not to sack officers but to find a more suitable role where “threat and risk is mitigated”.
HMICFRS, which made 43 recommendations, found many cases where applicants should not have become cops, including those with links to organised crime, along with predatory sex offenders, robbers, drug criminals and domestic abuse perpetrators.
Avon & Somerset police and crime commissioner (PCC) Mark Shelford, whose elected role is to hold the chief constable to account, asked Ms Crew about the report at a quarterly public grilling called the performance and accountability board.
The Conservative politician asked: “What reassurance can you give me that no serving officer or member of the wider police family poses a security risk to the public in the constabulary area?”
Ms Crew said she had overseen investment in the professional standards, vetting and counter-corruption departments since becoming chief constable a year ago.
“We have increased the size of those teams and we have increased the leadership too,” she said.
“It is worth saying, because we recognise this is not a new challenge, that we know there have been problems that sparked this inspection in the first place, not least the murder of Sarah Everard.
“We uniquely have an all-female leadership team in our professional standards department and our vetting team as well, so there is a unique insight.”
She said vetting processes had been reviewed several times in recent years and that professional standards had found areas for improvement.
“Our initial vetting is strong and we are in a good place with our re-vetting, when officers and staff need to be vetted again later in their career,” the chief constable said.
“We are in a good place too with ‘triggered vetting’ – when one person moves to another role, the vetting needs to be at a different level.
“And also we are building a culture where we are encouraging line managers as part of their leadership responsibility to identify when things change in one of their member of staff’s lives, it means re-vetting is necessary, so we built that into our annual career review process.
“So process-wise we are strong, there is real focus from the team – that increased team – on our standards, our culture, because it is so critical to public confidence.
“There is more to do. There are areas that I have asked to be looked at, [including] the appeals process which is done independent of the team.
“We have conversations as well around situations where we may take someone to a misconduct panel but they are not dismissed by the chair of the panel and they come back into the organisation for us to place somewhere where actually we aren’t comfortable with that person being, and we have to look at roles where threat and risk is mitigated.
“So those are two areas that – if I’m being completely frank and honest – I remain uncomfortable about and we need to do more.”
She said the force was never complacent and that Avon & Somerset Police was regarded as “risk-averse” when it came to vetting, which she said was “reassurance” for the PCC and the public.
“There is a pressure and tension to bring new officers and staff into policing, and to do it quickly, and sometimes vetting is seen as an administrative process or a bit of bureaucracy that slows that down, but actually it is a real important tension,” she said.
“So I see that risk-aversion, that tension against vetting, as being a good thing and a reassurance.
“This is a responsibility for every leader in the organisation to be watching for behaviour that is intentionally bad and which we must deal with through robust means, but also things that are not intentionally bad but need to be nipped in the bud and they need to be coached and educated and dealt with head-on.”
Ms Crew said she would ensure the force was doing or would do everything recommended in the report and “over and above that if there is anything else we need to do to improve that situation”.
Mr Shelford said: “One of those responsibilities of the leaders and commanders is to identify that change in people’s characters.
“That vapour-trail change is incredibly important and cannot be dismissed as a one-off.
“It needs to be – with the right balance of risk, of course – commented on so that people can take that into account when people are re-vetted to make sure there isn’t a theme that has caused that to happen.”
The meeting was held on Wednesday 2nd November.
Adam Postans, Local Democracy Reporter