A police chief has been ordered to quit after his boss decided pictures of a sexual nature found on his work phone and other misconduct amounted to an abuse of authority and that he had lost the confidence of the public.
An extraordinary showdown has pitted Nick Gargan, the chief constable of Avon and Somerset police, against the force’s police and crime commissioner, Sue Mountstevens, who began the legal process on Wednesday to demand his resignation or retirement.
Gargan was suspended in May 2014 over allegations of gross misconduct involving inappropriate advances to women, which he was cleared of in July. The inquiry panel, however, found him guilty of eight misconduct counts, including sharing information that he should not have. This included sending, receiving and storing four intimate images of a sexual nature on his police phone of a woman the panel accepted he was in a consensual relationship with.
Gargan had intended to return to work after being suspended for 15 months, but Mountstevens invoked the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 to demand he leave his £175,000-a-year job. The law is as yet untested in terms of whether it can be used to force a police chief to step down.
Three former chief constables of Avon and Somerset have said Gargan should go, more than 1,200 people have signed an online petition calling for his resignation and the local police federation and the superintendents’ association have also lost confidence in him.
Gargan is the second chief constable Mountstevens has clashed with. Colin Port quit after she said he would have to reapply for his job. She then handpicked Gargan as his successor in 2013.
The chaos now surrounding one of Britain’s biggest police forces calls into question Mountstevens’s judgment. Gargan is already under broad scrutiny from others in policing and has been found to be wanting.
An inquiry panel report said Gargan had flawed judgment in telling a junior colleague she looked beautiful and said Mountsevens had warned him not to pursue officers and staff under his command romantically.
A report from the Independent Police Complaints Commission said it was inappropriate for the chief constable to “tell a junior member of staff … that she was ‘rocking a bit of a Daisy Duke’ look”, a reference to a character from the 1970s TV series The Dukes of Hazzard.
In her statement, Mountstevens said Gargan was being required to resign or retire “due to a lack of confidence by local people, police officers and staff in his position as leader of Avon and Somerset constabulary”.
She said: “Chief Constable Nick Gargan has let down the colleagues he led and the communities he was there to protect. He abused his position by forwarding confidential emails, interfering with a proper recruitment process and sending, receiving and storing intimate images on his police-issue phone.
“He has shown flawed judgment and been found guilty of eight counts of misconduct, including two of discreditable conduct.
“I believe that there is now a detrimental impact on the efficiency and effectiveness of him leading Avon and Somerset constabulary, which is why I have today initiated the process to require him to resign.
“This is a separate process from the misconduct procedure and I will be writing to Her Majesty’s chief inspector of constabulary, Sir Thomas Winsor, to seek his views.”
The law Mountstevens will rely on, section 38 of the 2011 act, has not been used before and the force may be heading for a legal battle.
In a 2013 lecture, Winsor said parliament intended to legislate for a chief constable’s removal under section 38 for reasons “which affect the achievement of local policing needs and related priorities, and not misconduct”.
Section 38 reads: “The police and crime commissioner for a police area may call upon the chief constable of the police force for that area to resign or retire. The chief constable must retire or resign if called upon to do so by the relevant police and crime commissioner in accordance with subsection (3).”
That subsection lays out a series of procedural steps that must be followed. Mountstevens will have to provide reasons in writing for wanting Gargan to step down and he said he would wait to see them.
Gargan’s fate was thrown into doubt when three former chief constables of Avon and Somerset said in their public intervention that leaders should be “inspiring, not an embarrassment”.
Gargan, 48, is seen as one of the more able chief constables. He took over the Avon and Somerset force in March 2013 but was suspended in May 2014 over serious allegations from two whistleblowers. The IPCC investigated, and cleared Gargan of the most serious claims of “inappropriate advances towards female colleagues”.
A statement on Gargan’s behalf, issued by the Chief Police Officers Staff Association, said the news was a “a huge disappointment” for him.
It said: “He has complied with every requirement of the protracted misconduct investigation and subsequent hearing. He placed his fate in the hands of an expert professional panel, which made a clear recommendation that he should go back to work.
“The overwhelming majority of the rumours surrounding the chief constable have turned out not to be true; indeed none of the initial allegations that prompted his suspension led to a misconduct finding, let alone a finding of gross misconduct or criminal behaviour.”
If he were to resign, Gargan may face a significant financial penalty because, after 27 years as an officer, he is three years short of the 30 needed to receive his full pension.
On the day he was suspended, Gargan was tweeting jokes, saying he was not as busy as usual. He wrote: “Stand by for a Tommy Cooper classic to celebrate a day with a rare few gaps on the diary …”
Two minutes later he tweeted: “Police arrested 2 kids yesterday: one was drinking battery acid, the other was eating fireworks. They charged one & let the other off.”
Acting chief constable John Long has been in charge since Gargan’s suspension, but will retire at the end of August. Mountstevens has said the deputy chief constable Gareth Morgan would take over on a temporary basis.