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Can I complain if I have been treated badly by the police? Answer 7:

Sometimes when representing people we hear complaints about the way they have been treated by the police. Sometimes those complaints are justified, sometimes they are without merit. However if you have a sense of grievance about the way you have been treated there are avenues open to redress that treatment. How that is approached will depend on when the complaint arises and what the complaint is about.

There are common things that people complain about. They often relate to one of the following:

Stop and Question

Stop and Search


Treatment in Police Custody.

Treatment more generally.

Behaviour of police officers.

At this point it is worth noting the following about stop and search and arrest*:

Police powers to stop and search: your rights

The police can stop and question you at any time - they can search you depending on the situation.

A police community support officer (PCSO) must be in uniform when they stop and question you. A police officer doesn’t always have to be in uniform but if they’re not wearing uniform they must show you their warrant card.

Stop and question: police powers A police officer might stop you and ask:

  • what your name is

  • what you’re doing in the area

  • where you’re going

You don’t have to stop or answer any questions. If you don’t and there’s no other reason to suspect you, then this alone can’t be used as a reason to search or arrest you.

Stop and search: police powers

A police officer has powers to stop and search you if they have ‘reasonable grounds’ to suspect you’re carrying:

  • illegal drugs

  • a weapon

  • stolen property

  • something which could be used to commit a crime, such as a crowbar

You can only be stopped and searched without reasonable grounds if it has been approved by a senior police officer. This can happen if it is suspected that:

  • serious violence could take place

  • you’re carrying a weapon or have used one

  • you’re in a specific location or area

Before you’re searched

Before you’re searched the police officer must tell you:

  • their name and police station

  • what they expect to find, for example drugs

  • the reason they want to search you, for example if it looks like you’re hiding something

  • why they are legally allowed to search you

  • that you can have a record of the search and if this isn’t possible at the time, how you can get a copy

Removing clothing: police powers A police officer can ask you to take off your coat, jacket or gloves. The police might ask you to take off other clothes and anything you’re wearing for religious reasons - for example a veil or turban. If they do, they must take you somewhere out of public view. If the officer wants to remove more than a jacket and gloves they must be the same sex as you. Being searched doesn’t mean you’re being arrested.

Police powers of arrest: your rights

To arrest you the police need reasonable grounds to suspect you’re involved in a crime for which your arrest is necessary. The police have powers to arrest you anywhere and at any time, including on the street, at home or at work.

The police arrest procedure

If you’re arrested the police must:

  • identify themselves as the police

  • tell you that you’re being arrested

  • tell you what crime they think you’ve committed

  • explain why it’s necessary to arrest you

  • explain to you that you’re not free to leave

If you’re under 18 the police should only arrest you at school if it’s unavoidable, and they must inform your headteacher. The police must also contact your parents, guardian or carer as soon as possible after your arrival at the police station.

Police powers to use reasonable force If you try to escape or become violent, the police can use ‘reasonable force’, for example holding you down so you cannot run off. You can also be handcuffed. The police have powers to search you when you’re arrested.

The above gives an outline as to the way the police should behave when they stop/question/search someone. Any breach of these rules may lead to a legitimate complaint against a police officer. 

In Police Custody:

The police are under strict rules as to how they treat you whilst in police custody: the rules are set our in the Codes of Practice, Code C (Link). Those regulations require the police, for example, to allow you to have someone informed of your arrest and to have regular reviews whilst in police custody. There are some exceptions such as when the arrest is for terrorism offences. A breach of these rules may form the basis of a legitimate complaint.

How and When To Complain:

When In Police Custody: 

If you are in police custody your Tucker's solicitor can help raise your complaint when it is 'live'. For example, it maybe that a discussion with the Custody Sergeant about your treatment will quickly resolve matters. Failing that the matter can be escalated 'up the chain' with reference to an Inspector or more senior ranking officer and ultimately with the 'professional standards department' (see below). Should the complaint not be resolved then the complaint can be raised with the  Independent Office for Police Conduct (see further below) by way of appeal/review and sometimes it must be referred by the police.

When Not In Police Custody:

The complaint can normally be be raised directly with the police station/police force for the relevant area. Most complaints about the police are dealt with by the relevant police force. Each force has a separate department that oversees complaints. These are called ‘professional standards departments’ (PSDs). If you are not happy with the response of the police you can complain to the Independent Office for Police Conduct.

Independent Office for Police Conduct:

By law police forces must refer certain matters to the IOPC. These include:

  • certain complaints made to their force – such as those that include an allegation of serious corruption or serious assault

  • indications that police officers or staff have committed misconduct – for example, any suggestion that a criminal offence has been committed or that a serious injury has been caused

  • if someone had direct or indirect contact with the police when, or shortly before, they were seriously injured or died. However, forces only need to refer cases where the contact may have caused or contributed to the death or injury.

As mentioned above you can complain directly to the police or via the IOPC. If you complain via the IOPC, your complaint will be sent direct to the police force involved involved. They will assess your complaint and contact you about how it will be handled. The IOPC will not be involved with this initial assessment of your complaint but may become involved as part of any appeal or review if you are unhappy with the outcome of your complaint to the relevant police force. 

Apart from the matters referred to above, you can make a complaint if you:

  • experienced inappropriate behaviour from a police officer, staff member, contractor or volunteer. For instance, if you felt they were rude or aggressive to you

  • witnessed a police officer, staff member, contractor or volunteer acting inappropriately

  • have been adversely affected by the conduct of a police officer, staff member, contractor or volunteer, even if it did not take place in relation to you

You can also complain about how a police force is run. For example, you can complain about policing standards or policing policy.

There is no time limit for making a complaint. However, if you complain about something that happened more than 12 months ago, you should explain why you didn’t complain sooner.


As can be seen above, there are a number of areas of police practice that could form the basis of legitimate complaint. Of course, a complaint should only be raised where there is a proper basis for making it and our solicitors have raised complaints in the past which have been upheld and have resulted in changes to police practice in Kent. 

Should you feel aggrieved about the way you have been treated your Tucker's solicitor can advise you as to whether you might have a complaint and direct you to our specialist department should you need further advice. We can be contacted on: 0300 303 3883.

Adrian Rohard is a Partner and HCA at Tuckers Kent Branch.




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