When Peter Mahon was unlawfully removed from his house by police, he did not expect to spend four years chasing his case through the complaints process and courts.
Asleep on his sofa in November 2004, he was woken at 1.30am by two uniformed police officers who told him to leave or be arrested. The officers intervened in a civil dispute between Mahon and his ex-partner following the end of their relationship over rights to the house they had bought together in Hemel Hempstead.
Mahon, an actor, musician and filmmaker in his 50s, said: “The first thing [the police] asked me was, “Is this your house? Is your name on the deeds? They said they’d arrest me if I didn’t leave. They didn’t give any explanation.”
The solicitors Mahon sought advice from were astonished. “They didn’t believe me,” Mahon recalled. “They told me the police couldn’t do that. I said, I know – but they just have.”
Mahon lodged complaints first with Hertfordshire Constabulary and then the IPCC – the Independent Police Complaints Commission, an independent body established in 2004 seen as offering greater police accountability than its predecessors.
His complaint was that officers PC Hughes and PC Thornton had no right to remove him, but threatened him with arrest if he didn’t leave in order to prevent a breach of the peace – even though Mahon had been asleep when they entered and was, as Thornton later acknowledged, not threatening and calm throughout. Hughes’ notes made no mention of Mahon being abusive or threatening.
After four years of chasing the case through the system, Mahon was told the upshot would be that a senior officer would “have a word” with PC Thornton. PC Hughes, had resigned when the investigation began, without being interviewed.
The police receive around 30,000 complaints a year for anything from verbal abuse or malicious arrest to physical assault or death in custody. Though Peter Mahon’s case is far from the most serious it demonstrates how difficult it can be for complainants to receive an apology or sense of redress.
Few complaints brought against the police are upheld – according to the IPCC, 89 per cent of the 14,558 investigations last year found the claims unsubstantiated. Of 3,592 appeals, 72 per cent were rejected. Fewer still lead to serious disciplinary action; across the 43 divisions of England and Wales a total of 257 officers were disciplined as a result of a complaint: six were sacked, nine asked to resign, one demoted, 24 fined, 10 reprimanded, 97 given a written warning and for 106 no further action was taken. It is incredibly rare for an officer to face criminal prosecution.
The outcomes of high-profile cases, such as the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes in July 2005, and less serious complaints such as Mahon’s have led critics to conclude that after five years the IPCC is failing to deliver.
Mahon’s complaint was not investigated by Hertfordshire Constabulary’s professional standards department until November 2005, which rejected Mahon’s complaint in April 2006. The IPCC, to whom Mahon appealed, also rejected it in June that year.
Both investigations relied heavily on the officers’ testimony and did not include taking any further evidence from Mahon or anyone else. Caseworkers at the IPCC deal with appeals on paperwork alone, without conducting further investigations.
Frustrated after 18 months, Mahon took the unusual step of seeking judicial review of the IPCC’s ruling from the Court of Appeal in September 2007. Granting judicial review, Lord Justice Auld said he felt “considerable unease about the circumstances of the case,” adding: “Given the information available beforehand to the police officers concerned, their conduct in awakening and removing Mr Mahon from his home in the middle of the night in the claimed belief of an apprehended breach of the peace, the matter deserved in my view a more vigorous and thorough investigation by Hertfordshire Constabulary.”
The IPCC agreed to review the case, and in October 2008 concluded: “The evidence indicates that the officers did not have sufficient grounds to arrest Mr Mahon for breach of the peace. The fact that Mr Mahon was asleep does not indicate that harm was sufficiently imminent for a breach of the peace to be threatened.”
But when Hertfordshire Constabulary were asked to review the case again, it informed Mahon in December only that it would have “words of advice” with the remaining officer.
Nick Hardwick, chairman of the IPCC’s commissioners, told The Big Issue that he was awaiting the full report required from Hertfordshire Constabulary, but admitted it had taken far too long.
“Stripping away the bureaucracy behind this, if the force had said to Mr Mahon in Christmas 2004, yes, actually officers have made a mistake and got the law wrong on this. We’re really sorry about this, please accept our apologies. If it had said that, this would never have come so far. Four years later, Mr Mahon must be beside himself with rage, which is terrible. The system itself is worse that what happened to him in the first place.”
A change of culture was required in dealing with complaints resolved locally by the force, rather than by the IPCC’s investigators, Hardwick said: “It’s about PC Bloggs being able to say, sorry, it was late, I’d had a long day, I got it wrong and I’ll refresh myself on breach of the peace law, for example. If that is done well, complainants like Mr Mahon would be happy.
“Almost half the complaints against the police are for incivility or other neglect of duty. Relatively minor if taken alone, but the scale of them is huge. Dealing with these better is crucial to the police’s relationship with the public.”
The Police Action Lawyers Group, representing those complaining against the police, are not surprised that a comparatively minor case could have taken years to achieve, effectively, nothing. The PALG spokesmen resigned from their IPCC advisory board role last year expressing their “dismay and disillusionment” with “consistently poor quality of decision-making at all levels.”
But Hardwick replied: “It has improved. Have we still got a long way to go? Absolutely.”
Mahon, a father of two who has recorded several albums under the moniker Pete Bite and acted in EastEnders and The Bill, intends to sue. He said: “I stopped acting, stopped working on films, stopped regular work at all. This has taken over my life, and years of my time. This could have been sorted out the next day – they get slapped on the wrist, I get my keys back and go home. But with every lie they told about me I just got angrier and more determined.
“I’m trying to prove that you can take on the police and win. The problem is that the bad coppers lie and the good coppers stay silent.”
[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue, February 2009]