sThe contact told me there had been a police cover up. It turned out they were right.
Leigh Boobyer is the Local Democracy Reporter for Gloucestershire. The role goes beyond cover councils and also includes police authorities. As Leigh’s latest scoop shows, the LDR scheme is helping uncover stories which otherwise would have remained under wraps:
Some stories will really test your mettle.
The six months I spent investigating Gloucestershire’s police force into a single anonymous claim with no further leads were one of the most strenuous of my career.
That claim was this: police staff responsible for maintaining Gloucestershire constabulary’s fleet of vehicles had sold their tyres online.
The person who made the claim to me rang up out of the blue, and told me to meet them in a coffee shop without giving any detail other than saying, in their own words, “there has been a police cover up”.
When we met face to face, they claimed to know that police staff sold the tyres online but would not say any further on that matter. However, they then handed me an eight-page review of the fleet team which had been drafted by an HR consultant who had been drafted in by the force to investigate the matter. The results were not pretty reading.
Every paragraph is filled with lines about the team’s breakdown of trust, on-going anxiety and a broken and dysfunctional unit. Mysteriously the report only says the consultant was brought in after “an investigation and subsequent suspensions,” with no further detail. It was not clear whether the report was even linked to the claim so, perhaps, there may have been an investigation into something else.
The premise of the report led me to believe far more happened than simply what the source claimed, but I was certain what I was shown was the smoke from the gun.
Leaving them and heading back to the office, I felt excited yet bemused. “How many employees were involved? Were they disciplined? How did they do it?”
I searched through a number of years worth of misconduct outcomes committed by police staff and officers published by the constabulary on its website, but found nothing.
Trawling through social media, I exhausted the option to find a current or former fleet team employee who would speak to me, confidentially or not. There was so much I needed to establish with backed-up evidence before I sent an enquiry to the constabulary’s press office, so without hesitation I sent a Freedom of Information request to the police to find out more.
It then took months to squeeze the information out of the constabulary’s FOI team as they failed to provide responses on-time for half a year despite receiving my emails chasing them.
I knew it would take a large degree of determination to hold the police to account. After reaching out to the Information Commissioner’s Office with my concerns, it fired a warning shot at the constabulary over its failure to respond properly to my FOI requests.
The ICO was concerned at one point the constabulary did not provide a response within 40 working days, and delayed the reply a further 20 working days because a meeting to determine public interest factors had not been arranged.
The FOI department then sent the answers to me within deadline after the ICO’s warning that the constabulary had to provide a “substantive response”.
In a letter, The ICO told the police any significant or “repeated unreasonable delays in this context” will be monitored by its enforcement team and could lead to “structured intervention”.
When I told the constabulary’s press office the findings from my investigation, they revealed more than my FOIs did: that the tyres the staff sold were part-worn and those disciplined had served their punishment.
My investigation was widely shared across local news outlets such as Reach PLC’s Gloucestershire Live and Newsquests’ Wilts and Glos Standard. I was also invited to perform a live two-way on BBC Radio Gloucestershire’s breakfast slot, and the story featured on the BBC News website and on BBC Points West’s evening programme.
The constabulary’s Deputy Chief Constable Jon Stratford admitted live on BBC Radio Gloucestershire that the internal investigation into police staff wasn’t uploaded because “no one got around to it”. The force legally did not have to publish the probe online, but Mr Stratford said in hindsight he wished it was put online to be transparent.
Although no national newspapers picked up the story, I was praised by current and ex-national journalists, and popular regional hacks in the South West on Twitter.
The investigation took a lot of time, patience and determination, and as a result the police force will review procedures for publishing staff misconduct outcomes on their website.
Public trust in the police is vital, but when it is not transparent about its failings, that confidence becomes at risk of eroding. The police denied there was a cover-up, but publishing the investigation online would have at least been helpful.