The police watchdog has warned that public satisfaction with the police continues to fall as fresh figures revealed a record number of complaints against forces in England and Wales last year.
The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) received 37,105 complaints in 2014/15, a 6% rise compared with the previous year and the highest figure since the body was formed in 2004.
A public confidence survey published by the IPCC last year showed that satisfaction following contact with the police was falling and the latest round of statistics, particularly the increasing numbers of complaints recorded, suggest this trend has continued, according to a report from the watchdog.
IPCC chair Dame Anne Owers said the rise in the volume of cases could be because people are readier and more willing to complain, as well as having more to complain about.
Within the complaints received last year, 69,561 allegations were recorded. Of these, 31,333 were investigated, of which 14%, or about 4,386, were upheld.
One in seven of the allegations – 14% – involved incivility, impoliteness and intolerance, 8% were classified as “other assault”, 6% were categorised as oppressive conduct or harassment and 5% were linked to claims of a lack of fairness and impartiality.
There were also 150 claims of sexual assault – less than 1% of the total – while 405 were classed as “serious non-sexual assault”. The most commonly recorded allegation category was “other neglect or failure in duty” at 34%.
The IPCC said there are wide inconsistencies in the way forces around the country handle complaints.
The figures show that the proportion of complaints initially upheld ranges from 7% to 27%.
Some forces formally probe more than 70% of complaints, while others use more informal processes known as local resolutions in seven in 10 cases.
Owers criticised the complaints structure. She said: “These figures show a complaints system that is both overcomplex and inconsistent, and is clearly failing to satisfy a significant number of complainants.
“Chief officers and police and crime commissioners should look closely at the figures for their own forces to satisfy themselves that complainants are being treated fairly and well. However, the underlying problem is the system itself.”
She welcomed government proposals to simplify the system, saying that at present it “satisfies neither those who need it nor those who have to operate it”.
The surge in complaints comes after the Conservative-led coalition slashed funding to police by 20%, leading to a 17,000 drop in the number of officers, along with a matching reduction in civilian staff.
With a Tory government now at the helm, forces are facing budget cuts of up to 40% by 2020.
Alex Duncan, professional standards lead at the Police Federation of England and Wales, which represents tens of thousands of rank-and-file officers, said: “Policing is about maintaining public order and keeping the streets safe.
“Police officers do this by confronting the often unpleasant and dangerous elements in society and such interactions often lead to grievances being raised.
“Having a robust and well-resourced complaints system is crucial in ensuring the police service remains accountable for its actions.
“We are still concerned by the length of time it can take to resolve complaints, but we are encouraged by the latest figures, which are an indication that the system is working.
“However, let’s be clear – this rise in complaints is not mirrored in the national figures by complaints against police officers being upheld, which remains relatively low.”