Part 4: Detailed findings on public complaints about the Police

Response of the New Zealand Police to the Commission of Inquiry into Police Conduct: Final monitoring report

In this Part, we discuss the Police's progress with responding to complaints from the public. We discuss how the Police have made changes to:

We then discuss the difference these changes have made in:

How people can make complaints against the Police

People can make complaints about the Police either directly to the Police or to the Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA). Both accept formal complaints through their websites, by letter, or telephone. The Police accept complaints in person at any police station and the IPCA accepts complaints by email. People can also comment informally in other ways, including the Police's website, through social media, and in community meetings.

The Police have a "Praise and complain" page on their website. The link is on the home page. The Police have set out useful and detailed information on the Praise and complain page, including information on how to make a formal complaint or express dissatisfaction.

The Police have made information about making complaints available in pamphlets in English, te reo Māori, and 10 other languages. The Police require all police stations to have the English and Māori pamphlets available. Pamphlets in other languages are made available depending on how useful they would be for each community.

Police staff can make complaints through the same ways as the public, although they often do not. Police staff can report misconduct or other inappropriate behaviour in other ways, which we discuss in Part 5.

How the Police look into complaints

The Police have a comprehensive set of policies and procedures for how they look into complaints about police staff. Our cohort of 2007 Police College graduates had positive views of these policies and procedures. They considered them robust and transparent.

The Police have detailed policies and procedures on how to first respond to a complaint, including responding to anonymous complaints and complaints made by people in custody. The Police stress the importance of recording the complaint quickly and making the experience easy and fair for the complainant.

The Police consider complaints that are likely to put the reputation of the Police at risk as serious complaints. For example, the Police consider all complaints against senior staff and complaints about sexual misconduct as serious. The Police require police staff to report all serious complaints as soon as possible to the Police Commissioner and to the IPCA.

The IPCA ranks complaints from the most serious (category one complaints) to least serious (category five complaints). The IPCA can independently look into category one complaints, oversee the police investigation of category two complaints, and review the results of category three complaints. The IPCA can independently decide to look into complaints that highlight problems that may be systemic or widespread.

The Police set out detailed steps for police staff looking into complaints at each category. For all complaint categories, police staff looking into the complaint must communicate regularly with the complainant.

The Police's policies on investigating complaints stress that police staff need to avoid conflicts of interest. They give examples of when it would be improper for someone to investigate a complaint. There were some minor inconsistencies between the conflict of interest policy and the complaints investigation policy, with the former setting stricter standards. The Police also have policies on keeping a professional distance and separate guidance on looking into sexual assault complaints.

Resolving complaints should take fewer than 90 days for category one and category two complaints, and less time for less serious complaints. However, resolution usually takes longer than this. Only the National Manager of Police Professional Conduct can approve extensions.

The Police's handling of complaints is reviewed in various ways. Police Professional Conduct Managers review how police staff deal with complaints. The IPCA conducts its own reviews and random audits of complaints cases.

If the Police uphold a complaint, they have a few options. The actions that the Police can take range from having an "expectation-setting" conversation with the staff member subject to the complaint to dismissing the staff member and bringing criminal charges. If the complainant feels that the Police did not properly resolve their complaint, the complainant can contact the IPCA.

The Police have kept data on complaints for some time but, in December 2012, the Police put in place a much better database to collate all complaints. The database allows the Police to analyse the complaints data and produce reports. Senior police leaders get reports on the results of complaints. Extracting information from the database depends on one person, which may create an unnecessary risk.

Attitudes to, and oversight of, complaints have changed

The Police's attitude to complainants has changed. Most of our cohort and other people we spoke to said that the Police are now more transparent about staff conduct, more accountable to the public, and more thorough in looking into public complaints:

When somebody takes the time to make a complaint, Police will follow up on that and look into it. I think that (the Police) do really well – it is not just ‘she'll be right' – we have rules in place that if somebody makes a complaint to a police officer then that complaint will be followed up and sent to the IPCA. There is no hiding … I like that.

Police staff told us that they were familiar with the policies and procedures in place for dealing with complaints. Individual staff members now have far less discretion in deciding whether to act on complaints than in the past:

At the time the senior would decide, but he wouldn't write it down, it wouldn't be anywhere official.

People we spoke to recognised there had been a cultural shift in the Police. They also pointed out that media and technological developments, for example, people now being able to audio or video record interactions with the Police, had contributed to increased accountability in the Police.

Police are accountable for their actions. It's changed massively.

The Police have introduced professional conduct managers at the national and district level. Professional conduct managers review the result of all complaints. Police staff and the IPCA see that the investment is paying off because, when conduct issues emerge, senior officers take the issues seriously and do something about them.

Police staff commented favourably on the IPCA's independent role in the complaints process. Staff were likely to refer complainants to the IPCA at the beginning of the complaints process. At the end of a police investigation, the Police advise complainants of their right to approach the IPCA if they are not happy with the way the Police have dealt with their complaint.

In all the complaints cases we reviewed, the Police had notified the IPCA and the Commissioner of Police when the complaint was serious. A professional conduct manager had reviewed all but one of the cases. This shows that there is good oversight of complaints.

Some of the people we spoke to suggested that the Police did not support police staff well when they were the subject of a complaint. They thought that the Police should tailor the policies and procedures depending on the nature of the complaint. We discuss the results of complaints and the relationship to performance management later in this Part.

Increasing accessibility to the complaints process

The Police use a social research company to do an annual survey asking the public if they are aware that there is a complaints process and how confident they are of finding out how to complain. Most respondents know that they can complain about the Police. Figure 4 shows that about three in four respondents are aware that there is a way to complain about the Police. Nine out of 10 respondents are confident that they could find out how to complain. These results have been reasonably consistent over the last five years.11

The Police have analysed the survey results to identify which respondents are least likely to know that there are ways to make a complaint about the Police. These respondents include people:

  • of Asian or Indian, or Pacific Island heritage (48% and 43% respectively did not know, compared with 25% of all other respondents);
  • aged between 16-24 years or 25-34 years (45% and 31% respectively did not know, compared with 19% of respondents over 35 years old); or
  • living in Auckland City or Southern Districts (38% and 32% respectively did not know, compared with 25% of all respondents).

Figure 4
Surveyed awareness that the Police have a complaints process

Source: Police annual citizen satisfaction surveys from 2010/11 to 2015/16. In 2015/16, the sample size was 4800 people.

The Police do similar analysis to find out which groups of people were more likely to say that they were not confident that they could find out how to make a complaint. The Police use all the analysis to tailor their approach, for example, in deciding which languages to translate the complaints information into.

Volume of public complaints

In this section, we discuss findings from two sets of public complaints data: selected categories and all complaints or all complaint events (see Figure 5).

From January 2011 to March 2017, the Police received 15,479 selected category complaints, concerning 10,238 complaint events. In any one year, there are between 2000 and 3000 complaints in these categories. To provide some context, during 2015/16 the Police responded to 927,796 events, stopped 627,569 vehicles, and carried out 135,515 foot patrols.

Figure 6 breaks down those 15,479 selected categories complaints by month. Figure 6 shows that the number of complaints went down from 186 a month in January 2011 to April 2012 (135 a month). The number rose to a peak of 291 a month in February 2015. Since then, it has been going down again (to 186 in March 2017).

Figure 5
Terms we use to describe complaints

Selected categories – complaints that relate most closely to the Commission's recommendations, including breaches of the Police's Code of Conduct, poor workplace and off-duty behaviour, misuse of police resources, and sexual misconduct.
All complaints or all complaint events – all public complaints about the Police, including complaints about other areas of policing, such as vehicle pursuits.
We also use two different terms about complaints.
Complaints– the total number as counted by the Police. We give some examples of how this works in the bullet points below:
  • If one person complains about an incident where two police staff attend, the Police count that as two complaints.
  • If two people complain about the same incident where one police staff member was present, that also counts as two complaints.
  • If one person complains about one police staff member, and that complaint has multiple factors (such as poor attitude and a service failure) the Police count each factor as a separate complaint.
Complaint events – the number of unique events that gave rise to the complaint. So, if two people complained about one incident involving two police staff, we count this as one complaint event.

Figure 6
Number of complaints about the Police, selected categories each month from January 2011 to March 2017

Source: New Zealand Police complaints database.

The number of complaint events in proportion to the population does not change much from year to year. From 2012 to 2016, the number of complaint events for our selected categories averaged 3.7 for each 10,000 residents.

The number of complaint events for all complaints averaged 4.5 for each 10,000 residents for the same period. In comparison, the average for England and Wales for the same period was 5.7 complaint events for each 10,000 residents.

In our view, the number of complaints is only a partial measure of police conduct. What the number of complaints means is open to interpretation. For example, a low number of complaints could indicate problems with the accessibility of the Police's complaints system or a reluctance to complain. A high number of complaints could signal a decline in the conduct of police staff or the public becoming more aware of how to complain.

In 2017, the Police's Executive Leadership Team received reports about complaints. The reports included monthly and year-to date-figures with the previous two year's results. The reports do not show whether the number of complaints is aligned with the Police's expectations.

We have seen other organisations setting upper and lower thresholds for measures, such as complaints, where good performance is neither high nor low. We think this is something the Police could consider in their future reporting. Having such thresholds would alert the Police to unusual or unexpected patterns of complaints.

The nature of complaints

Complainants mostly raised concerns about police staff:

  • having a poor attitude or using inappropriate language (21.3%);
  • providing an inadequate service (18.5%); and
  • failing to investigate properly (17.2%).

No other type of complaint individually accounted for more than 10% of all complaints.

The number of complaints about sexual misconduct is small and falling, from 22 in 2011 to nine in 2016.

In our view, the low levels of serious misconduct12 that complainants report indicates that more police staff are living up to the standards of behaviour the Police expect of them.

Results of complaints

We analysed the results of complaints during the period January 2011 to March 2017. Figure 7 shows that the Police upheld almost 8% more complaints in 2017 than in 2011. The proportion upheld from year to year is variable, but is increasing.

Figure 7
Upheld complaints as a proportion of completed complaints (selected categories), January 2011 to March 2017

Source: New Zealand Police complaints database.

We randomly sampled 30 completed complaints cases from six police districts, covering a combination of serious and less serious complaints. We had no concerns about how the Police had handled 28 of the 30 complaints.

The Police did not resolve the other two complaints satisfactorily the first time, but did eventually. In one complaint, the Police misunderstood the core issue but the IPCA picked up on the misunderstanding before the Police had closed the complaint. For the other complaint, the complainant went back to the IPCA to complain about the outcome and the Police re-examined the complaint. These cases showed us that there is a check and balance on the Police's decision-making.

We looked at what action the Police took after upholding a complaint from a member of the public. The table in Figure 8 shows that the proportion of complaints resulting in disciplinary action is falling and the proportion of complaints resulting in a performance management course of action is increasing. By the end of March 2017, no police staff were retiring or resigning during an active complaint. Complaints caused by a policy or procedural flaw also decreased, suggesting better procedures are in place.

The falling number of complaints that lead to disciplinary action in Figure 8 indicate that the nature of the police behaviour the public complains about is getting less serious. From our complaints file review, we were satisfied that the action taken by the Police in the cases we randomly sampled was appropriate. The results indicate that the Police are becoming more confident in using their performance management approach to set clear expectations of staff behaviour.

Figure 8
Action taken on upheld complaints, January 2011 to March 2017

2011 %2012 %2013 %2014 %2015 %2016 %2017 %
Disciplinary action 10.1 6.3 2.2 5.0 3.4 2.9 2.0
No action 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.2 0.0
Performance management 71.3 81.4 80.4 80.1 88.3 88.8 93.0
Policy/procedure changes 11.6 6.3 8.4 9.0 6.4 6.0 5.0
Resigned during process 6.7 5.0 7.8 5.8 1.4 2.1 0.0
Retired during process 0.3 1.0 1.3 0.2 0.6 0.0 0.0
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0

Source: New Zealand Police complaints database.

Note: The individual percentages shown for 2013-2015 appear to total 100.1% due to rounding treatment.

Timeliness of resolving complaints

The Police are resolving complaints more quickly. Figure 9 shows that in 2011 the Police resolved about a third of complaints in less than three months. In 2016, about half were resolved in less than three months. The Police are resolving more complaints in less than six months and reducing the proportion of complaints that take more than six months to resolve. The proportion of complaints that take more than a year to resolve has also fallen significantly.

Figure 9
Time taken to resolve complaints (selected categories), comparison of 2011 and 2016 performance

Source: New Zealand Police complaints database.

In our review of complaint cases, the Police resolved almost 60% of complaints in six months. The median time to resolve a complaint was 152 days. One case took more than three years to resolve because the subject of the complaint was facing criminal charges. This case showed that the Police can take a long time to resolve complaints.

From our data analysis, 26 complaints (1% of all public complaints) from 2013 and 42 complaints (1.6% of all public complaints) from 2014 were still ongoing at the end of March 2017. The Police have small numbers of ongoing complaints for every year since 2011.

To some extent, these longer cases show that the Police are properly investigating complaints. Our review also highlights a sometimes slow process, particularly for relatively minor complaints and those involving criminal proceedings.

Overall, most of our cohort thought that the Police and the IPCA performed well in conducting thorough, transparent, and professional investigations.

Where a staff member was the subject of a complaint, they said the Police or IPCA had concluded the investigation in a short time frame. However, some of those complained about said that it was a very stressful experience, particularly while they were waiting for the outcome of the investigation.

The IPCA told us it is working with the Police to change the way the Police resolve some complaints. The IPCA's approach encourages alternative resolution13 when appropriate, without doing a long investigation. This means that the Police are resolving complaints more quickly before they escalate. The IPCA told us that the police districts are very supportive of the approach.

The alternative resolution approach should help the Police to resolve complaints more quickly. We understand that the Police are changing the way they record these alternative resolutions in the complaints database. This should help the Police prove that the approach is saving time and money and reducing the stress on complainants and police staff.

The Police understand that dealing with complaints well helps to maintain or increase the public's satisfaction with the Police's services. It also helps increase the public's trust and confidence in the Police. Figure 10 shows that the public's satisfaction with police services has risen from 79% in 2008/09 to 84% in 2015/16. The 2015 Kiwis Count survey reported increased public satisfaction with the non-emergency police response. The State Services Commission commented that the increase in public satisfaction measured by the Kiwis Count survey was more than double than the rest of the public sector combined.

The Police carry out extensive analysis of the citizen satisfaction data and publish the results on their website. Figure 11 shows overall levels of trust and confidence in the Police from 2008/9 to 2015/16.

Figure 10
The public's satisfaction with the Police's service, 2008/09 to 2015/16

Source: Police annual citizen satisfaction surveys.

Note: Rounding treatment means the bars may not add up to 100%.

Figure 11
The public's trust and confidence in the Police, 2008/09 to 2015/16

Source: Police annual citizen satisfaction surveys.

Note: Rounding treatment means the bars may not add up to 100%.

Public trust and confidence in the Police was higher at the end of 2016 than it was at the end of 2009. Figure 11 shows that the statistically significant improvement in trust and confidence occurred up to 2012/13, and has remained at or about the same level since. The proportion of respondents holding negative views about trust and confidence in the Police is low compared with other public sector organisations,14 and ended the 2009/10 to 2015/16 period about a third less (6% down to 4%).

In the survey results, there are some differences in the experience of residents based on their gender and ethnicity. We return to these results in Part 6 when discussing the diversity of the Police's workforce.

11: Data is available from 2008 but the annual survey questions changed in 2010 and are not directly comparable.

12: Under the Code, "serious misconduct" is behaviour so serious that, if the allegation is proven, it is open to the Police to dismiss the staff member.

13: Alternative resolution usually involves an impartial third-party leading negotiations to resolve a matter to the satisfaction of both parties to a complaint.

14: See Who do we trust survey, Victoria University, March 2016.