Last week, I voluntarily broke my own brain.

I decided to look into police misconduct in Wales, having received a tip (and pile of data) from a colleague.

I did so not only because recent events have put the issue at the front of our minds, but because I believe that policing and justice are, like housing and welfare, among the arms of government policy that most shape our experience of the country we live in.

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Misconduct or malpractice by those who hold power in those areas can have an outsize impact on some of our most vulnerable; as such, it’s of desperate importance that we know where, when and at what scale it occurs, and that it’s dealt with effectively.

What followed was about four days of scouring every Welsh force’s website for misconduct hearing outcomes, opening as many Freedom of Information disclosures as I could find, and staring, eyes bloodshot, at perhaps the most cursed spreadsheet ever committed to Google Sheets.

In the end, I pulled together the case details for about 64 dismissals from Welsh police forces. Well over a quarter of those dismissals related to acts of violence, domestic abuse, serious sexual harassment or sexual assault.

They were largely male officers, and the cases ranged from the fairly absurd (an off-duty copper biting someone at Live Lounge and declaring he had “a Glock” as he was arrested) to the deeply, deeply upsetting (an officer was jailed for raping a very young child on camera).

The thing is, though – I have a nagging feeling that there are cases I’ve missed.

For a start, wider data suggests that a greater number of sexual misconduct dismissals occurred for some forces than I could find details for: i-News reported recently that seven officers were dismissed from South Wales Police for sexual misconduct over the past 3 years, and five from North Wales Police.

But since the outcomes of misconduct hearings are removed from public view a few weeks after the hearings take place, details are difficult to track down in a short time-frame.

South Wales Police, for example, says it usually removes misconduct outcomes 28 days after the hearing – the minimum required by law – so if the press doesn’t report on the case at the time, its details remain hidden unless someone puts an FOI in (watch this space).

Members of the press (and often, the public too) can attend a misconduct hearing to report on it, but to do that, they need first to know it’s happening at all – and with enough notice to adequately prep and get down to the venue.

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That’s not guaranteed, and sometimes cases are “heard in private” – meaning that the press and public cannot attend – or officers are otherwise granted anonymity.

During my investigation I came across a couple of these anonymised cases, and while some explanations given to me by forces made sense (ie. To protect the identity of a vulnerable victim), others were much less clear – and no grounds for anonymity were provided (beyond the normal “in line with regulations” spiel).

The National Wales: Former PM Theresa May branded the police misconduct process "worryingly opaque" last weekFormer PM Theresa May branded the police misconduct process "worryingly opaque" last week

These issues are a major problem because the one searchable central database for serious misconduct among police officers – the College of Policing’s Barred List – only works when you have the full name of an officer. Putting in a police force name or a partial officer’s name will get you nothing.

It all adds up to a thick fog of bureaucratic secrecy and confusion, that makes assessing the scale of what are very serious problems incredibly difficult.

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And these are very serious problems.

I’ve seen a few responses to my article ask why this is such a big deal, given there were only a few cases of sexual assault in each force over a number of years - one posited that all of us would be tempted by the ability to conduct police computer searches on new romantic partners.

On the question of whether “all of us” would be tempted to abuse police computer information systems – Maybe? Personally, I don’t think so – there’s a lot more everyday information available to police than I think perhaps many of us might assume, so it’s not just a case of finding out whether your lovely new girlfriend is actually an axe-murderer.

But even if the answer was yes – does that not make us question whether people should be trusted with that kind of access?

On the first point: Putting aside the fact that one of those cases involved horrific child sex abuse, and another involved a PC considered “undeployable” by senior officers because he couldn’t be left alone with female victims of crime (who was nonetheless allowed to keep working on the frontline for some time), it’s a big deal precisely because of the role that police officers occupy.

The National Wales: PC Paul Chadwick recently admitted having sex with two vulnerable women he met in the course of his dutiesPC Paul Chadwick recently admitted having sex with two vulnerable women he met in the course of his duties

Few other jobs afford you the same level of unquestionable power and frequent contact with some of society’s most vulnerable – that includes both traumatised victims of crime and people who are criminalised.

If you’re someone with severe mental health problems, someone that’s homeless, that has a drug addiction – you’re not only much less likely to have anyone come to your defence, you’re also much more likely  to come into contact with the police, and those officers are afforded unparalleled discretion to decide what behaviours are and aren’t crimes in the moment, particularly through section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986.

With Westminster’s Policing Bill not far off on the horizon, that discretion is only going to strengthen. If transparency is vital now, but not provided – what will the situation be when that Bill becomes law?

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