Fair and effective systems for police complaints

Police forces in Europe have redesigned internal and public complaints processes based on five key principles identified in our research.

Analyses of European human rights law revealed police complaints should be independent, adequate, prompt, transparent and involve the victim. 

Initiatives to improve procedures and change police culture are underway across Europe.

Subsequent research on internal misconduct proceedings in Greater Manchester Police identifying disproportionality on grounds of ethnicity has been widely disseminated across the UK.

Our research is supporting procedural and cultural reforms in police forces across Europe, especially to tackle cultures of impunity and disproportionality in complaints against ethnic minority or female officers.

The key research findings have been incorporated into police training, procedural reform and promoted as best practice across Europe and beyond. Dr Smith’s insights have been used in:

Dr Smith's report provides a powerful reference point. We have been able to strengthen our argument for more urgency… to drastically improve minority representation in Policing and Police Leadership.

Charles Critchlow / President of the National Black Police Association
  • Training and advice to the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland on how to deal with alleged police misconduct in a highly charged political environment
  • Development of new mechanisms for police complaints in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine
  • Training for frontline and senior Bahraini police officers
  • Publication of a Council of Europe ‘Opinion’ written by Dr Smith on independent and effective complaints mechanisms, now cited widely and provides the backbone of recommendations by other organisations including the United Nations and Amnesty International


Applying insights from a practice background, our research established the idea that police complaints procedures serve as regulatory as well as accountability mechanisms.

Drawing upon the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) case law, we identified five principles of independent and effective investigation of police complaints:

  • Independence (institutional, hierarchical and practical);
  • Adequacy (regarding the thorough gathering of evidence, and ability to punish);
  • Promptness (to maintain trust and confidence);
  • Public scrutiny (accountability in practice);
  • Victim involvement (to safeguard their legitimate interests);
  • Our research suggested that complaints processes should serve to prevent misconduct and learn lessons as well as punish officers.

The most recent research, within Greater Manchester Police, revealed that ethnic minority officers were significantly more likely than white officers and staff to be investigated for corruption, and more likely to be formally investigated for wrongdoing, whereas white officers were dealt with informally.