Like solicitors, 'imperative' that public has confidence in police officers, appeal judges say
A police sergeant who ordered a junior officer to destroy a dead colleague’s mobile phone to prevent his family finding out about an affair must leave the force, appeal judges have decided.
Sergeant Neil Salter, who had an “unblemished career” as a police officer for 22 years, admitted that he had not behaved with honesty or integrity in the investigation following the death of PC Ian Morton in a traffic accident.
The court heard that PC Morton had a long-term partner, but was also involved with a policewoman from another force with whom he had spent the night before his death.
Two mobile phones were recovered from his vehicle, one of them containing text messages “which evidenced the relationship”.
Sergeant Salter, who had been in touch with PC Morton’s new girlfriend, ordered a junior officer to destroy the phone to protect his dead colleague’s family from finding out about the relationship. The junior officer refused to destroy evidence and told senior colleagues about the matter.
Delivering judgment in Salter v Chief Constable of Dorset  EWCA Civ 1047, Lord Justice Maurice Kay said Salter had admitted that the decision to destroy the phone was his alone, it was a “wrong and bad decision” and the junior PC was right to speak out about it.
The Dorset Police misconduct panel ordered him to resign, and the Chief Constable agreed that any lesser sanction would be inadequate. However, the Police Appeals Tribunal (PAT) ruled that Salter should be allowed to stay in the force and be demoted to the rank of constable.
The Chief Constable applied for judicial review and the High Court quashed the PAT’s decision.
In his judgment, Mr Justice Burnett relied on the leading disciplinary cases involving solicitors, Bolton v Law Society and Salisbury v Law Society.
Lord Justice Maurice Kay rejected the arguments of Salter’s counsel that Burnett J should not have relied on solicitors’ disciplinary cases.
“Whilst there are differences between the positions of police officers and solicitors, the judge was not and could not have been ignorant of them,” he said. “It seems to me that he was simply drawing on the authorities in relation to solicitors by way of analogy.
“Although police officers do not have a fiduciary client relationship with individual members of the public or the public at large, they do carry out vital public functions in which it is imperative that the public have confidence in them. “It is also obvious that the operational dishonesty or impropriety of a single officer tarnishes the reputation of his force and undermines public confidence in it.”
Maurice Kay LJ said the central question was whether the PAT exceeded the limits that were reasonably open to it.
“The focus must be on what Mr Salter actually did. In the course of an investigation for which he had a measure of supervisory authority he sought to procure the destruction of potentially significant evidence. What is more, he sought to do so through the medium of a junior officer.
“On any view, that was a serious impropriety. It is a primary duty of police officers to gather and to preserve evidence. It is what they do. It is what the public rely upon them to do.”
Lord Justice Maurice Kay went on: “There are more heinous examples of impropriety in the course of investigation but in relation to many of those the likely consequence would include prosecution and conviction in the criminal courts, not just a requirement to resign from the force, which is in itself a slightly lesser sanction than dismissal.
“As to personal mitigation, just as an unexpectedly errant solicitor can usually refer to an unblemished past and the esteem of his colleagues, so will a police officer often be able so to do. However, because of the importance of public confidence, the potential of such mitigation is necessarily limited.”
Maurice Kay LJ said anyone reading the facts of the case would feel sorry for Salter and it was a “tragic case”. However, he dismissed Salter’s appeal.
Lord Justice Stanley Burnton and Lord Justice Gross agreed, for their own reasons.