How Police Officers Groom People for Sexual Abuse


Photo of Kevin Donoghue, solicitor, who explains how police officers groom people for sexual abuse.

Kevin Donoghue’s client was groomed by a police officer. Here, Mr Donoghue explains what happened, and why and how the police force failed.

By Kevin Donoghue, solicitor

This week my client, Samantha McTavish, bravely went public with her story. (She has authorised me to use her details here.)

On BBC Newsnight Sam explained how a Devon & Cornwall Police sergeant groomed her for sex.

How did he do it? Here, I describe the issues, show how this officer abused his position, and explain why Devon & Cornwall Police failed my client.

What is Grooming?

Grooming broadly is where a potential abuser builds an emotional connection with a person to gain their trust as a way to commit sexual abuse.

I have described in the past that grooming in the context of the police is the process by which these sexual predators:

  • abuse their position, and
  • exploit the imbalance of power

to develop an emotional connection with a victim to prepare them for sexual abuse.

This police abuse of authority for sexual gain has been more fully stated (for the benefit of the police themselves) by the National Police Chiefs Council 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.”

(My emphasis in bold.)

In its “National Strategy to address the issue of police officers and staff who abuse their position for a sexual purpose” (2017), the NPCC explains that:

What is important to note is the imbalance of power between police officers or staff and members of the public. In abuse of position cases such as these, a member of the public does not have to be vulnerable for the definition of abuse of position for a sexual purpose to be made out. However the vulnerability of the victim may be seen as an aggravating factor.

Vulnerability may arise out of the citizen’s age, mental health, abuse of alcohol or drugs or their circumstances at a particular time, for example reporting a domestic abuse incident, being the victim of a crime, the suspect or witness in an offence, or suffering bereavement. However, vulnerability must always be considered in its widest sense and it should be recognised that victims of this kind of corruption often do not see themselves as victims or indeed vulnerable.

(My emphasis in bold.)

How Sexual Abusers in the Police Get Away With It

Knowing all this, consider Samantha McTavish’s story. It has all the hallmarks of police grooming. As she says in her interview with journalist Yasminara Khan:

He pursued me, he groomed me, he pursued a sexual relationship with someone he was meant to be looking out for.

This is how the Devon & Cornwall Police sergeant did it. (Where appropriate, I quote from my client and Yasminara Khan in the Newsnight interview.)

  1. Ms McTavish had been identified as a vulnerable person. She had mental health issues, which resulted in a breakdown after having her housing benefits stopped. The council worried for her welfare and asked the police to check on her.
  2. The officer knew she was vulnerable. When he first visited because of the council’s referral, Sam’s abuser completed a vulnerability/ risk assessment form on which he deemed her to be vulnerable.
  3. He attended alone. (Which is important because of the imbalance of power issue raised by the NPCC, lack of witnesses to him initiating sexual contact, and later pursuit of a sexual relationship.)
  4. The officer was attentive. “He genuinely wanted, or seemed like he wanted, to support me, reassure me, listen to me,” Sam said.
  5. After the initial welfare visit, he followed up with multiple text messages and unsolicited home visits over the following weeks. He was on duty, but not there on official police business. As Ms McTavish said, “I couldn’t understand why he was here. I don’t like to use the word grooming, but, kind of, looking back now, that’s what it felt like.”
  6. The sergeant exploited her vulnerability. As Yasminara Khan said, Sam’s “resilience and ability to refuse his advances was low. She eventually consented to a sexual relationship.”
  7. Ms McTavish was manipulated into sex. As Sam said, “it was consensual, but I should never have been put in that position to consent or otherwise. He shouldn’t have come to my house pursuing sex.” This comes up time and again. When exposed, officers try and argue that their interactions were private and consensual. They are nothing of the sort. As the NPCC noted in its report: “The abuse of position for a sexual purpose is serious corruption and should always be treated as such.” (My emphasis.)
  8. The officer ignored his victim’s suffering. Sam cried during sex, but the officer “didn’t even notice” and persisted.
  9. Ms McTavish described feelings of shame, anger, disgust, and guilt. After sex, the officer stayed with her for a short time. Sam said, that while they chatted, “inside I’m feeling sick, and thinking I just want this man, this person, this vile person out of my house and I want nothing else to do with him.”
  10. The police sergeant had used his position to groom vulnerable women for sex before. “It wasn’t just me, there was a number of women,” Ms McTavish said. As Yasminara Khan points out, Newsnight has investigated Sam’s and another woman’s case. Both involved Devon & Cornwall Police. In these cases, the officers targeted multiple vulnerable women and “had contacted them in the course of their duties.”
  11. Devon & Cornwall Police failed to put systems in place to stop the officer. The issue of police officers grooming vulnerable victims has been well-known for over a decade. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary described a 2012 report by the IPCC/ACPO, saying that:

the practice of abusing authority to legitimise unnecessary contact with victims of crime for sexual gain as a form of serious corruption that “fundamentally betrays the trust that communities and individuals place in the police”.

In that report, the police were given a checklist to make sure they had:

sufficient policies, procedures, and safeguards in place for the prevention, prediction, and investigation of this kind of case.

And, as I noted in 2017, all senior officers, including those at Devon & Cornwall Police:

    • knew about the issue of police abuse of authority for a sexual purpose, and
    • committed to work to prevent it.

Every police force in England & Wales also received an official College of Policing guide on how to deal with it, which meant that everyone working within the police, even volunteers and staff, were expected to know and follow the guidelines.

Devon & Cornwall Police Failure

Sadly, Sam’s story is all too familiar. I am now helping her with a police abuse of authority for sexual gain compensation claim.

But it should never have come to this. Ms McTavish’s case shows that, despite repeated warnings going back over 10 years, Devon & Cornwall Police failed her by allowing the police sergeant who groomed her to remain in power.

Kevin Donoghue is the solicitor director of Donoghue Solicitors.