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Inside the Ethics Committee at Avon and Somerset Constabulary

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As part of the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s inquiry into local policing - leadership, ethics and accountability, members recently visited Avon and Somerset to hear from key stakeholders. Committee members met with Professor Allyson MacVean from Bath Spa University who is working with Avon and Somerset Constabulary to set up an ethics committee. Professor MacVean has provided an overview to explain the role of the ethics committee.

In July 2014, the Code of Ethics for the police service of England and Wales became enshrined in law as a code of practice under the Police Act 1996. Nine principles and ten standards of professional behaviour contained in the code provide a framework to support officers and staff to make the best decisions in complex and challenging situations.

Ethics committees were first introduced in hospitals in the early 1980s  for clinical practice to assist the decision making process for resolving ethical dilemmas. These committees now fulfil three general functions; education about ethics and ethical decision making; ethics advice; and the formulation and review of ethical policy. Information and data from the committees provides for evidence-based policy and practice.

Avon and Somerset Constabulary, Bath Spa University and Imperial College NHS Trust are working collaboratively to adapt the principles of clinical ethics committees into a police setting.

The idea of developing police models of applied ethics is a highly novel approach. It may appear on first impression that the practices of medicine and policing have little in common, but actually they are both inextricably linked by a number of professional obligations and responsibilities. Both professions are service oriented and first responders in emergencies and other crisis. Doctors and police make fast decisions in challenging and rapidly changing situations. These practitioners deal with matters and make decisions of significance importance to the welfare of individuals which may have great benefits or cause harm. Both the medicine and policing profession have specialist knowledge and expertise that enables them to fulfil their role in ways that untrained members of the public cannot.

Using the framework and knowledge of clinical ethics committees, an ethics committee has been established in Avon and Somerset Constabulary. The role of the Committee is to improve service delivery to the community and partner agencies as well as support police officers and staff across all ranks and levels. It will support the development and enhancement of a visible ethics culture and enable organisational learning. The committee will not deal with issues of misconduct or misbehaviour, rather it will focus on ethical dilemmas. It will enable a deeper understanding of the complexities in policing and promote higher level thinking around decision making.

 Ethics committee members are volunteers from the Constabulary and other organisations with knowledge, expertise and skills required to fulfil its role and meet the committee’s objectives. Training of the committee members focussed on subjects such as ethical and moral reasoning and decision making models, to ensure members have the relevant knowledge and skills needed. Members need skills to ascertain the moral dilemma(s) of a case being presented and be able to use decision making models in order to provide the right advice.

 The Ethics Committee offers a confidential opportunity for discussion and structured approach to decision making. It must be remembered that police officers and staff by virtue of their role are experienced decision makers – arguably one of the most experienced decisions makers within the public service sector. The role of the ethics committee is not to deal with the day to day decisions, but provide support for those decisions which cause ‘sleepless nights’. The committee will consider individual, department/team and organisational (anonymised) dilemmas.

 The Chair of the committee is Professor Vassilios Papalois, a consultant transplant and general surgeon at Hammersmith Hospital and Chair of the Imperial College NHS Trust Ethics Committee. He is vice-chairman of the St. Mary’s Research Ethics Committee, member of the British Transplantation Society Ethics Committee and a member of the Ministry of Defence Research Ethics Committee. He brings a wealth of experience of ethics committees and chairmanship. The first committee meeting is scheduled for 31 March 2015 and will be held monthly.


Professor Allyson MacVean is Senior Research Fellow at the School of Society, Enterprise and Environment at Bath-Spa University. She was the founder and first Director of the John Grieve Centre for Policing and Community Safety. Prior to this position, Allyson worked in the Serious and Organized Crime Unit at the Home Office. Her interests include police intelligence, the policing of investigations, policing child sexual abusers and police education. Her books include co-editor of The Handbook of Intelligence Policing (OUP, 2008), Policing Paedophiles on the Internet (New Police Bookshop, 2004) and Sage Course Companions: Policing (Sage Publications, 2007).

The Committee of Standards in Public Life will continue to monitor the development of Avon and Somerset’s ethics committee. You can follow the progress of our inquiry into local police accountability on Twitter. You can also sign up for email alerts from this blog and email alerts from our GOV.UK homepage.

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