Five Ways Police Sexual Misconduct Goes Unchecked

Photo of Kevin Donoghue, a solicitor who explains how police sexual misconduct goes unchecked.

Solicitor Kevin Donoghue offers five reasons why police sexual misconduct goes unchecked in this blog post.

By Kevin Donoghue, Solicitor

Recently BBC Woman’s Hour and Newsnight reported on the issue of police sexual misconduct, including sexual abuse within the police’s ranks.

Listen to their disturbing report on Woman’s Hour here.

Sadly, incidents of police sexual misconduct are not new.

In January 2017, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) reported that police abuse of position for a sexual purpose, which includes cases within the police’s own ranks, is a nationwide problem. I highlighted the issue here: Police Abuse of Position for a Sexual Purpose – No More Excuses.

And, in 2019, ITV reported on sexual abuse by police officers, which I wrote about here: Will an ITV Documentary Help End Sexual Abuse by Police Officers?

In the latest report by the BBC, the journalists made two Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to learn more about how police officers abuse their positions of authority for sexual gain.

Among other things, the BBC’s FOIA reports showed how predatory police officers avoid accountability for sexually abusing their colleagues. They exploit failings in the system, including:

  1. the duty to report police misconduct and risk of bad faith accusations
  2. the lack of independent investigations into police sexual misconduct
  3. the Police Federation’s conflict of interest when representing both officers involved in sexual abuse cases
  4. the way police misconduct proceedings protect abusers’ identities
  5. how police forces avoid accountability by ignoring or avoiding legitimate FOIA requests.

Here I review the evidence found by the BBC and explain how this form of police officer corruption goes unchecked.

What the BBC Freedom of Information Act Reports Showed

  1. The first FOIA request for information from the police about sexual misconduct

The first FOIA request was a collaboration between Woman’s Hour and BBC Newsnight. It sought information about police sexual misconduct from all 46 police forces in the UK. Only 32 forces replied.

The request covered the past five years. It uncovered nearly 1,500 cases of police sexual misconduct.

But only 204 cases resulted in disciplinary action. As a result, a paltry:

  • 7% of the accused officers in the reported cases were dismissed
  • 7% were reprimanded but allowed to keep serving as police officers
  • 52 (or 3%) of the accused officers’ cases went to court.
  1. The second FOIA request

This FOIA request covered the last three years.

It also dealt with allegations of police sexual misconduct, which included serious criminal offences as well as matters which were serious enough to report but not regarded as crimes. These included:

Only 19 of the 46 forces responded to the second FOIA. Despite this small number, it revealed:

  • 29 rapes (including one of a child)
  • 149 sexual assaults (including during strip searches).

The FOIA responders described disturbing behaviour by the police including:

  • stalking
  • indecent exposure
  • revenge porn
  • two allegations of attempting to converse with a child or possessing or making indecent images of children.

Ruth’s Story of Sexual Abuse by a Police Officer

The figures uncovered by the BBC showed how police officers to abuse their power for sexual gain.

But it is important to remember that these are not just numbers. They account for real people whose lives have been changed by sexual abuse and misconduct.

The Woman’s Hour report brought the statistics to life through the story of “Ruth”, a former officer. Her interview described how victims of sexual abuse by colleagues in the police are mistreated, and why they may be reluctant to report.

You can listen to Ruth’s interview here or read my transcript:

I was a probationary officer and I’d worked with this male officer for several months.

We had got on well then on a works outing I got sexually assaulted by him.

He touched my chest multiple times saying, “you touch mine and I’ll touch yours.”

No one else saw and he was my line manager so I felt like I couldn’t say anything.

I felt violated.

I was really uncomfortable. I told my partner, and he was fuming.

Q. What happened next?

A. The next day I got a text from him saying, “hope you had a good time.”

I decided to reply saying he was inappropriate and if it happened again, I would report him.

He sent a text back apologising.

Q. Could you move on from that?

A. No. I didn’t want to work alongside him anymore. But when I told my superiors they said I was duty bound to say why.

When I did, they said I had to tell professional standards and make a complaint.

I said no. I didn’t want to risk my job.

I was eventually persuaded to speak to professional standards and was interviewed as an assault victim (only for professional standards I didn’t make a criminal complaint at that stage).

Q. What happened with professional standards?

A. By the time the hearing was due I had been transferred and found out that my new boss was a friend and colleague of the man who assaulted me.

He issued me with a development plan to improve my performance. I was upset as I believed there was nothing to justify this.

They said if I didn’t complete it, I would be marked as underperforming. In the same meeting they told me I wasn’t cut out to be a cop and they were extending my two-year probation period by four months. This felt to me more like a disciplinary than anything else.

Sometime later in training I was served with allegations about my honesty and integrity. This was a month before the misconduct hearing against my former line manager was due to be heard. I had to wait months to get full details.

I got served with 19 other allegations including that I’d lied about my health and that a back injury caused at work had actually happened in my own time.

At the time officers from the professional standards department would turn up unannounced when I was working.

I wasn’t allowed to get my Police Federation representative along.

The Federation was, of course, also supporting the man who assaulted me. I was pregnant at the time.

All of this made me very ill. I got depression and anxiety. I ended up going to hospital with stress at one time.?

Q. What was going on with the investigation into the other officer at this time?

A. His hearing was postponed four times. They were dealing with mine instead.

I kept being told I was not entitled to legal advice.

Eventually I got independent legal advice and I made a criminal complaint about the officer. But after a 12- month wait I was told there would be no further action saying it didn’t meet the evidential threshold to be sent to the Crown Prosecution Service.

It was over a year later that the professional standards hearing into the allegations about me took place and I was dismissed.

I couldn’t believe it.

I wrote to the Police and Crime Commissioner for backing but I never heard anything.

I didn’t know what to do.

Q. What happened to the officer you complained about?

A. He resigned but they still allowed him to give evidence at my hearing and make counter allegations. Now he has no stain on his character, but I am on the policing barred list. I can never be an officer and it’s all for something I didn’t do.

I can’t believe it. I got assaulted it was never dealt with and I lost my job. I’m now taking legal action.

Ruth’s story showed that sexual abuse within the police is a systemic and institutional issue. Others echoed her comments. One messaged the programme saying:

I was an officer with the Met. I was dismissed after I reported sexual assault.

Here are five reasons why police officers get away with abusing their colleagues:

1. The duty to report police sexual misconduct and risk of bad-faith accusations

The BBC’s second FOIA report noted that only 40% of police sexual misconduct investigations started with a report from a fellow officer. This is despite the fact that police officers must report misconduct by their colleagues when they see it. The police Code of Ethics says:

 I will report, challenge or take action against the conduct of colleagues which has fallen below the standards of professional behaviour.

It makes clear that:

You have a positive obligation to question the conduct of colleagues that you believe falls below the expected standards and, if necessary, challenge, report or take action against such conduct.


You will not be supported, and may be subject to disciplinary procedures, if your report is found to be malicious or otherwise made in bad faith.

Many sexual assault or misconduct cases involve one person’s word against another. The chances of a “he-said-she-said” situation are great. The consequences for the innocent victim could be that they are accused of making a bad faith allegation. If their abuser is believed, they could suffer disciplinary action and even dismissal.

The conflict between the:

  1. duty to report, and
  2. risk of disciplinary action after being accused of making a bad faith accusation.

means that victims are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

No wonder only 40% of accusers came from within the police’s ranks.

2. The lack of independent investigations into police sexual misconduct

As Harriet Wistrich, director of the Centre for Womens’ Justice pointed out on Woman’s Hour:

Women are very reluctant to report sexual assault and other forms of misconduct to the police and that probably, almost certainly, is amplified where the alleged perpetrator is a police officer. Because who are they reporting to? To the police.

The Centre for Women’s Justice is pursuing a “super-complaint” looking into police abuse and sexual misconduct. Ms Wistrich says that they have had more than 150 women come forward since they launched the complaint.

One of the Centre’s recommendations is that there is:

 an independent reporting channel so that women have confidence to come forward and independent investigation because often the very same people who are investigating know the officers concerned, they are in the same police force (particularly in the smaller police forces) and this is very undermining of confidence.

This makes perfect sense. And yet the current system does not allow for it.

Instead, police force internal Professional Standards Departments investigate the bulk of sexual misconduct investigations. Only rarely does the Independent Office for Police Conduct get involved, as I described in this blog post: Are police sexual exploitation cases being brushed under the carpet?

3. Police Federation conflict of interest when representing both officers involved in sexual abuse cases

Ruth’s story also highlights the nonsensical situation where both the accused and accuser are represented by the same organisation.

Both police officers in her case were members of the Police Federation. The Federation, which is considered the police officers’ union, describes itself as:

the staff association for police constables, sergeants and inspectors (including chief inspectors), having first established in 1919.

We are one of the largest staff associations in the UK representing more than 130,000 rank and file officers.

Despite Ruth seeking the support of her union, it appears that the Police Federation sided with the accused officer and supported him throughout the disciplinary process. This could be because she was only a probationary officer, and he had a higher rank.

Someone also wrongly told her that she was not entitled to legal advice.

To her credit, Ruth got a second opinion and brought a criminal complaint. But the Crown Prosecution Service evidently felt that the criminal standard of proof could not be met. To do this, the court would have to find beyond reasonable doubt that the officer Ruth accused was guilty of a criminal offence.

Ruth said that “no one else saw” what happened. It is likely that the “he-said-she-said” nature of her case was a factor in the CPS’s decision not to prosecute.

Contrast a criminal case with police misconduct and disciplinary proceedings. They are conducted on the civil standard, also known as “the balance of probabilities”. Police Misconduct Panels must decide if it is more probable than not that the allegations are made out. Perhaps that is why the officer who assaulted Ruth resigned before taking the chance of being sacked at a misconduct hearing.

4. The way police misconduct proceedings protect abusers’ identities

In my previous blog post you can read how the Police (Conduct) Regulations help cover up sexual abuse by protecting the anonymity of sexual abuser police officers and their employer police forces.

The Regulations allow for anyone involved in the proceedings, including police officers accused of sexual misconduct and their police force employers, to seek orders from the Police Misconduct Panel. Orders can protect the identity of the officers involved by:

  • preventing public and media access to disciplinary hearings,
  • limiting the use of live witness evidence, and
  • putting publicity restrictions on cases, anonymising details of the police officers involved.

Police sexual abuse is one of the most serious forms of corruption and gross misconduct. The Police Conduct Regulations and Misconduct Panels can help it get “brushed under the carpet”.

5. How police forces avoid accountability by ignoring or avoiding legitimate Freedom of Information Act requests.

It is telling that both FOIA requests filed by the BBC had low participation rates from the police:

  • fewer than 70% of police forces responded to the first FOIA request
  • only 41% of them responded to the second request.

The forces which failed to respond either:

  • did not meet the deadline, or
  • said it was too costly to provide the information.

Neither of these excuses pass the smell test. Police forces are well-resourced and familiar with the FOIA process. If some forces can provide the information, then all can.

A failure to respond, or accurately report, suggests that forces have a wider problem with police sexual abuse and misconduct. But by concealing the extent of the problem, they make it easier for sexual abusers within their ranks to continue their corrupt behaviour.

Public Confidence Impact

The numbers reported by the BBC should be considered an undercount for two reasons:

  1. the responding forces will not have included every instance. As Ruth’s story showed, officers are reluctant to report misconduct by their colleagues.
  2. the investigation uncovered nearly 1,500 instances of police sexual misconduct. It stands to reason that this is a bigger problem. This is because about 30% of forces in the first FOIA request and nearly 60% of forces in the second FOIA request failed to answer.

Police forces have no excuse for allowing this serious form of corruption to continue. Chief Constables:

  • undermine public confidence in their forces, and
  • damage morale within their ranks

by enabling police officers who abuse their power for sexual gain.

And, as Ruth’s story showed, the personal and professional toll can be devastating.

Kevin Donoghue is a solicitor who specialises in police abuse of authority for sexual gain compensation claims.