Police Abuse of Position for a Sexual Purpose – No More Excuses

Photo of Kevin Donoghue, solicitor, who discusses what is being done to deal with police abuse of position for a sexual purpose.
Kevin Donoghue, solicitor, discusses what is being done to deal with police abuse of position for a sexual purpose here.

By Kevin Donoghue, solicitor

Recently I wrote about the serious issue of police abuse of position for a sexual purpose. I expressed concern that the police are not tackling the issue, causing serious harm to victims. As a recent report shows, I am not alone. But, what it also shows is that police staff at all levels, from senior officers to volunteers, are now on notice.

What is Police Abuse of Position for a Sexual Purpose?

This form of serious corruption is defined as:

“Any behaviour by a police officer or police staff member, whether on or off duty, that takes advantage of their position as a member of the police service to misuse their position, authority or powers in order to pursue a sexual or improper emotional relationship with any member of the public. This includes: committing a sexual act, initiating sexual contact with, or responding to any perceived sexually motivated behaviour from another person; entering into any communication that could be perceived as sexually motivated or lewd; or for any other sexual purpose.”

It has also been described as police abuse of authority for sexual gain.

HMICFRS January 2017 Report

In my earlier post I asked if some of these cases were being “brushed under the carpet” by the police. I based this in my experience of dealing with police abuse of authority for sexual gain compensation claims. I also referred to a January 2017 report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS). Among other things, the inspectorate noted that:

  • Police abuse of position for a sexual purpose is a nationwide problem. It affected all but one police force during the review period March 2014-March 2016.
  • 40% of allegations involved vulnerable victims of crime
  • 39% of accusations of police abuse of position for sexual gain involved victims of domestic abuse
  • Less than half (48%) of these police abuse cases were reported to the Independent Police Complaints Commission. This was despite clear guidance from HMICFRS and others.
  • Between 1 December 2013 and 30 November 2014 only 33 officers had been dismissed after having a relationship with a vulnerable person. This “apparent disconnect” between the number of alleged cases and disciplinary action means that some of these predators are still serving, giving them the opportunity to repeat their misconduct.

In its January 2017 report HMICFRS recommended action to deal with police abuse of position for a sexual purpose. It said:

“Within six months, all forces should have started to implement a plan to achieve the capability and capacity required to seek intelligence on potential abuse of authority for sexual gain. These plans should include consideration of the technology and resources required to monitor IT systems actively and to build relationships with the individuals and organisations that support vulnerable people.”

Police Response to the HMICFRS January 2017 report

Did the senior officers who set force policy listen to HMICFRS?

The inspectorate gave forces until 8 June 2017 “to develop and begin to implement plans to achieve the capability and capacity required to seek intelligence on potential abuse of position for a sexual purpose.”

It reviewed the plans, which were all submitted by 31 May 2017. The results are mixed. HMICFRS’ October 2017 report shows “insufficient progress”. According to HMI Mike Cunningham,

“The majority of police forces in England and Wales still have work do.”

It found that only two of the 43 police forces already had adequate capacity and capability in place. Of the remaining 41 forces:

  • Almost half (21) of force plans did not contain any reference to reviewing and improving the capability and capacity to identify potential abuse of position for a sexual purpose
  • Nine force plans contained some elements of capacity and/or capability but the force had either not commenced implementation or had provided insufficient information for HMICFRS to assess progress
  • Almost half of all forces did not have either the capability or capacity to monitor and audit every aspect of their IT infrastructure. (HMICFRS said that this was important to prevent and detect misuse of information held on police computer systems.)
  • Despite not being “resource intensive”, six forces failed to reassure HMICFRS that they had built links with staff in agencies that support domestic abuse victims
  • More than half (26) of all forces had failed to implement their plans, or had supplied such minimal detail that HMICFRS could not evaluate their progress.
  • Most concerning was the fact that 11 police forces did not provide sufficient information to assess whether they were responding to any elements of the recommendations.

The inspectorate noted creditable work at a national level. But, in one way or another, most police forces have failed to fully address this serious form of police misconduct. This is despite chief officers in those forces approving the national work, which focused on 3 areas:

  1. Definition and strategy
  2. Guidance
  3. Complaints Investigations

1. Definition and strategy

An example of the work done at national level is that of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC). The NPCC includes senior police officers from every force in the country. In April 2017 it agreed a national strategy to deal with police abuse of position for a sexual purpose. This included creating a new definition for this form of serious police corruption. (HMICFRS previously referred to it as “abuse of authority for sexual gain”.) I quoted the agreed definition earlier.

It is worth noting that the NPCC definition includes corruption by police officers and police staff members. These include volunteers or staff contracted into policing or support roles. It has the potential to greatly increase the number of people caught by the guidance. This makes sense from a practical and public perspective. Police abuse of position for a sexual purpose should be dealt with the same way, regardless of the title of the person who committed it.

The NPCC strategy is intended to “prevent such behaviours from occurring in the first instance”. It also emphasises a commitment to working together. Forces say they will focus on “the means by which we will improve our collective approaches to the utilisation of proactive tactics to better gather intelligence, identify corrupt individuals and vigorously pursue perpetrators in an effort to remove them from the service for the benefit of the public and the service alike”.

They promise to focus on:

  • Prevention – this covers vetting, professional boundaries training, and guidance for supervisors;
  • Intelligence – this covers intelligence gathering, relationships with other agencies that support vulnerable victims, IT monitoring and audit, development of intelligence and the identification of intelligence gaps;
  • Enforcement – this covers recording cases as serious corruption, oversight of the force’s CCU, referrals to the IPCC, use of an investigative checklist, victim support and access to suitably trained specialist staff; and
  • Engagement – this covers working with support agencies, internal and external communication strategies, raising awareness and learning organisational lessons from previous cases

The consequence of this is that senior officers in all police forces agreed on the issue, and committed to work to prevent it.

2. Guidance by the College of Policing on Abuse of Authority for a Sexual Purpose

Supporting the NPCC’s work is the College of Policing (CoP). The CoP is the professional body for everyone who works for the police service in England and Wales. This includes police officers, special constables, police staff, and police volunteers.

It sets policing standards such as those in the Police Code of Ethics. The CoP produced a guide in response to HMICFRS’ report: “Maintaining a professional boundary between police and members of the public”.

As the introductory note states,

“There is no place in policing for those who abuse their position for sexual purposes.”

The CoP and NPCC agreed the guide in April 2017. All police forces received copies and everyone working within the police, even volunteers, should now know and follow the guidelines.

3. Complaints Investigations: The Role of the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) and government

The IPCC amended its mandatory referral criteria in response to HMICFRS’ January 2017 report. HMICFRS was critical of the police’s failure to recognise the problem of abuse of position for a sexual purpose as a form of serious corruption. As a result, such cases were not referred to the IPCC, or not referred “without delay” as required.

It made two recommendations:

  1. Within three months, all forces should complete a retrospective review of allegations and consider referrals to the IPCC.
  2. Within three months, forces should establish effective procedures to identify all future allegations of abuse of authority for sexual gain as serious corruption matters and make appropriate referrals to the IPCC.

The IPCC also wrote to all chief constables in December 2016 raising the mandatory referral issue. And in January 2017 the IPCC wrote to all forces. It reminded them to review cases from the previous three years to decide if, given the clarified criteria, any cases should be referred to the IPCC.

It also asked for more information on closed cases that were not referred but should have been. HMICFRS says that all forces have now responded.

Government Involvement

The Home Office introduced changes to the Police (Complaints and Misconduct) (Amendment) Regulations 2017. Effective from 22 May 2017, the “serious corruption” definition explicitly includes police abuse of position for a sexual purpose or for the purpose of pursuing an improper emotional relationship. The IPCC operational advice note for April 2017 states that

This clarifies the existing position, that such behaviour is an example of serious corruption that must be referred to the IPCC.

In case there is any doubt, the note gives further guidance and examples of the abuse of authority for a sexual purpose. Now there should be no room for confusion. Police professional standards departments must refer this form of serious corruption straight to the IPCC. People like my client “Jean” should not have to wonder if their complaints are going to be brushed under the carpet by the police.

Action

HMICFRS wrote to all forces with their assessment. It says it will re-inspect forces next year and notes that:

Between this feedback provided in our individual letters to forces, the national strategy, College of Policing guidance and IPCC referral criteria, we believe that all forces have the information they need to produce and implement effective plans to address our recommendation, and to improve the way they prevent, seek out and respond to the problem of abuse of position for a sexual purpose more widely.

I agree. For every police force, at all levels, there are no more excuses.

Kevin Donoghue is a solicitor who helps people bring civil actions against the police for misconduct.