Europe’s Law Enforcement Agencies have failings of Professional Standards and anti-corruption

Matt Gardner

Matthew Gardner retired in 2019 after 30 years’ service as a Chief Superintendent in the Metropolitan Police, New Scotland Yard, London. He was the Head of Professional Standards & Anti-Corruption from 2015-2019 where he led a team of 430 of police officers and civilians responsible for following up all complaint allegations relating to racism, harassment, bullying and corruption. He is an evaluator for the European Commission on anti-corruption and  works with CurbingCorruption on anti-corruption and professional standards in policing.

The Group of States Against Corruption, or GRECO, is the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption monitoring body. GRECO was established in 1999 by 17 Council of Europe member States, and has since opened up to non-European States. It currently has 50 members. Among its other functions, GRECO conducts regular peer reviews of its member states. During that evaluation process, a team of four subject matter experts conduct a week-long peer assessment in the nation under review, and present a detailed report to the Council of Europe, which then discusses the report, before presenting it for sign-off at the national level.

Since GRECO’s establishment in 1999, four evaluation rounds have been completed, and we are currently in the middle of the fifth round. Each round of evaluations has a thematic focus, and the two main focus areas for the current evaluation round is ‘corruption and prevention at the top executive function in the central government’ and ‘corruption and prevention in law enforcement agencies’. So far, fifth round assessments have been conducted for 18 of GRECO’s 50-member countries, and while there are of course significant differences between countries, some common themes have already emerged in the assessment of corruption in law enforcement.

The most significant gap that the GRECO evaluators have identified to date is the inadequacy of codes of conduct for Law Enforcement Agencies (LEA’s). Indeed, some countries lack a code of conduct for internal professional standards altogether. While law enforcement agencies in most Western countries do have a code of conduct, they are marginalized or ignored, with insufficient efforts to disseminate and reinforce the principles advocated in ‘the code’ to the rank-and-file.

Law enforcement agencies often neglect the development and day-to-day enforcement of a code of conduct due to precedence given to higher public protection issues such as tackling serious criminality, violence, promoting public confidence, thwarting terrorism and latterly, supporting other front-line services in responses to huge matters such as Covid-19. A ‘code of conduct’ or ‘ethics policy’ often doesn’t take high priority—until, that is, something goes wrong and the agency finds itself at the centre of a scandal.

This neglect is a mistake.

As with any doctrine, there is a judgement to be made between having a policy that records all the principles and standards expected of a work-force, so that internal discipline procedures have a composite record to refer against, and having a tangible product that front-line law enforcement staff can understand and adhere to. It has to be something that someone shouldn’t need to look up in a book, that is common sense, almost automatic and entwined in daily routines and behaviour.

Accepting that ‘codes’ or versions of codes exist in the majority of States reviewed by GRECO to-date, the focus needs to be on how these codes become the ‘life and breath’ of ‘LEA’s’. There were some worrying themes across the States that need to be addressed: some LEA’s allowed law enforcement officers to take political appointments whilst in service; some lacked clarity on permissible roles conducted post-retirement; there were conflicts of interests in relation to family members having a criminal record and a duty on the officer to report; there were inconsistencies about business interests, gifts and hospitality declarations.

Most serious of all, the reviews showed a lack of routine vetting procedures for officers throughout their service. It should not be the norm that routine vetting checks are only conducted on an officer prior to their joining a law enforcement agency (LEA). An officer’s career can last anything between 25 to 40 years, depending upon the state concerned, and during that time, human nature shows that people change and a minority of officers, as in many organisations, become susceptible to corruptible approaches. These approaches can be from lone criminals, organised gangs or from less obvious examples such as taking traffic bribes, selling police information, taking advantage of vulnerable people for sexual favours, or simply ignoring a crime committed by a friend or family member.

Not having a robust vetting procedure contained in a ‘code of ethics/conduct’ is dangerous. Without a routine ability to demand an officer to report if a close-relative has been arrested for a criminal offence leaves the LEA open to the potential for a serving officer to be coerced into illegal actions to protect that family member or close friend/associate. Taking this a step further, not having a robust vetting procedure to demand that an officer declares if they have been convicted of a criminal offence such as theft or assault leaves the LEA open to an employee who enforces the law onto others, yet could be a criminal themselves. Without a thorough ‘in service’ vetting procedure, an LEA depends upon the honesty of its officers’ to admit to having such a contentious issue like a criminal conviction: unlikely, to say the least.

A robust Code of Conduct / Ethics needs to be the spine of any Law Enforcement Agency (LEA). The simple reality is that this area of business is critical, easy to remedy and something we all need to promote further. Opportunities can be taken to spread the word contained in the codes, to drip daily reminders such as at training events, notice boards, weekly newsletters, blogs, or something as simple as having ‘key statements’ on the home page of a work computer. This GRECO 5th round is reminding us that corruption prevention is as at least as much about such daily matters as about having the right policies – like washing our hands today to limit Coronavirus transmission.

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