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Honest and reasonable: holding police accountable

StopWatch volunteer Corey Campbell reflects on the Supreme Court's ruling in the 'officer W80 case'

Editor's note: StopWatch, together with INQUEST and Hickman & Rose solicitors, were interveners in the officer W80 case. You can read our joint media release here and the full text of the Supreme Court judgment here.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court published its decision on the matter of "R (on the application of Officer W80) v Director General of the Independent Office for Police Conduct and others" – otherwise known as the ‘officer W80’ case. The case has been under intense scrutiny by those advocating for police accountability, including us here at StopWatch, and its resolution establishes a significant precedent for the handling of police misconduct in the England and Wales.

The case refers to Officer W80, an armed police officer involved in the lethal shooting of Jermaine Baker during a police operation in 2015. Baker was purportedly part of a scheme to liberate two individuals from police custody, and police intelligence suggested that the pair were armed. Officer W80 alleged that during the operation, Baker's hands moved quickly towards a bag on his chest, causing W80 to fear for his own safety and that of his colleagues. As a result, Officer W80 shot and killed Baker. Following a search of both Baker’s body and the surrounding area, no firearm was discovered in the bag, only a prop firearm in the back of the car.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) investigated this incident and was of the view that the officer’s belief, although it was held honestly, was unreasonable. Therefore, according to the civil law test, he would be liable for gross misconduct. According to the civil law test, any factual error can only be relied upon if it was reasonable to have made such an error. With the civil law test applied, the IPCC recommended that Officer W80 be held accountable for his gross misconduct. The Metropolitan Police Service (MPS), being arguably biased in this situation due to the involvement of one of their own officers, disputed the application of the civil law test by the IPCC and declined the recommendations made, refusing to initiate misconduct proceedings against W80. Following this, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) (the replacement for the IPCC) instructed the MPS to follow its recommendations and, unhappy with this decision, the MPS took steps to appeal it. Siding with the IOPC, the Supreme Court has now ruled that the civil law test is to be applied and the application made by the MPS was dismissed.

The ruling of the Supreme Court is expected to have profound effects in cases such as these; the application of the civil law test means that an officer's belief must be reasonable to have held - not merely that this belief was honest and sincere, in order for it to function as a defence. This highlights the importance of reasonableness in police conduct and strengthens, from a legal standpoint, police accountability. Under this decision, police officers in similar positions to that of W80 are now unable to use their honest mistaken belief as a defence during misconduct proceedings unless they are also able to prove that it is reasonable. To better explain the ‘real world’ effects of this decision, this decision could serve to prevent an officer from using a belief, however honest it may be, that is racist or prejudicial in nature as a defence from liability, be that of violence being linked to Black men (or any other example), as an excuse for their actions. One could argue that, if the principle of this judgment had been applied to prior cases, such as that of Mark Duggan, then it may have led to some very different outcomes.

As a society, we must not lose sight of the importance of an accountable police service. We must continue to advocate for those who cannot do so for themselves. Here at StopWatch, we are dedicated to shining a light on the failings of police in this country in an effort to help them better serve the people they are there to protect. If you or someone you know has been impacted by the police and their failings, please do not hesitate to reach out to us for emotional or practical support.

Corey Campbell is a paralegal with a strong passion for the pursuit of fairer and more transparent policing. He is currently studying for the LPC, and hopes to become a solicitor with a focus in this area in the future.

Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

About the author

Corey Campbell.

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