Investigation of police ill-treatment in Europe

JUSTICE has taken part in an EU-wide project on ill treatment by police officers. The report, published by the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, is a comparative study of seven EU countries, funded by the Open Society Foundations. JUSTICE authored the England and Wales research, which is summarised in the main comparative report.

Evidence suggests that law enforcement officials in many countries frequently, if not routinely, use excessive force when carrying out their law enforcement or public order functions. However, it is evident that torture is not encountered across all European states, and in some appears to be all but non-existent. The two best performing countries in the study were England and Wales and Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, JUSTICE’s research identified that despite regular complaints of excessive force being made in England and Wales, few officers are ultimately convicted of ill-treatment related offences and that the process of raising a complaint is overly complex.

This research project tried to analyse questions such as, why does torture and serious ill-treatment occur in some jurisdictions and not others? What are the relevant variables? Can lessons be learned from states that have a low incidence of torture and ill-treatment that can be used to improve the position in those countries that have a poor record in this respect?

The main report makes several recommendations, including:

  • Introduction of systemic and comprehensive, state-run data collection, which is publicly available, is essential to give a clear picture of the “torture situation” in a given country.
  • Introduction of detailed practice directions for “suspect” situations (such as the use of coercive measures) in order to provide guidance for officers, professionals vested with the task of adjudicating complaints and also a means for concerned individuals.
  • Prescription of the general use of cameras during interrogation, promoting the use of body-worn and dash board cameras by the police and allowing the public to record police activities by civilians.
  • Introduction of a reverse burden of proof provision in damage and tort cases if a reasonable suspicion of ill-treatment is raised and the camera recordings that would be capable of clarifying the situation are compromised or deleted without an acceptable explanation.
  • Guarantee that information about the right to complain of any police action is communicated in an easily accessible manner.
  • Introduction of legal norms and practical solutions to ensure effective protection of “whistle blowers”, i.e. officers who want to report on irregularities experienced within a police force.
  • Guarantee of the right of access to a lawyer during police custody and the notification of a third person. Detailed practice directions for potential difficulties and accessible letters of rights should be drafted in order to provide guidance both for police and the concerned individuals.
  • Prescription that officials found guilty of ill-treatment receive criminal sanctions commensurate with the gravity of the crime and that they are disqualified from continuing to serve as public officials.
  • In-depth research into the criminal courts’ practice in ill-treatment cases.
  • Strategic litigation before the European Court of Human Rights to test whether sanctions are compliant with Article 3 ECHR.

Find out more at the Hungarian Helsinki Comittee’s website