Are police sexual exploitation cases being brushed under the carpet?

Photo of Kevin Donoghue, solicitor, who discusses police sexual exploitation.
Kevin Donoghue discusses police sexual exploitation.

By Kevin Donoghue, solicitor

In January Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) reported on police sexual exploitation, also known as “police abuse of authority for sexual gain”. The police’s overseer found that, in the 2 years to March 2016:

  • Police abuse of authority for sexual gain is a nationwide problem. All but one police force had at least one case during the period.
  • There were 436 reported police sex abuse allegations made against the police in England and Wales (excluding British Transport Police)
  • 306 police officers were accused of this kind of police corruption
  • 28 PCSOs and staff were also accused
  • 40% of allegations involved victims of crime (who were vulnerable already)
  • 39% of accusations involved victims of domestic abuse.

It seems that everyone agrees this is a grave issue. HMIC Inspector Mike Cunningham described police sexual exploitation as the “most serious” form of corruption. Home Secretary Amber Rudd described the findings as “shocking”, saying it “undermines justice and public confidence”. The National Police Chiefs Council say this kind of misconduct in public office is a “disease” which “can never be justified or condoned”.

Despite this, HMIC found that less than half (48%) of all the police sexual exploitation cases it identified were reported to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) for an independent investigation. HMIC said the police’s failure to refer matters to the IPCC was “disappointing” because police forces are aware of their obligations, shown by:

  1. the IPCC/ Association of Chief Police Officers report which raised the issue in 2012. The IPCC reported on it again in 2015, as did HMIC (as it was then known), and
  2. clear rules which state that police forces are required to report ALL of these “serious corruption” cases to the IPCC.

Perhaps even more troubling was the “apparent disconnect” between the numbers of alleged cases and staff dismissals. Between 1 December 2013 and 30 November 2014 only 33 officers were dismissed after having had a relationship with a vulnerable person.

This means that some officers who prey on vulnerable people for their own sexual gain stay in the police, giving them the opportunity to repeat this serious misconduct in public office.

Why are these things happening?

The story of one of my clients might help with an answer.

Police Sexual Exploitation by Phone

“Jean” (name changed for confidentiality) is a 61-year-old divorcee. She was married to a police officer for 15 years.

She met “John” on an online dating site. They became friendly but did not “click”, occasionally walking their dogs together. John was moving house and asked if he could store some boxes at her home. Jean agreed. He mentioned that one of the boxes had a home-made pornographic video of him and his ex-wife. Jean thought it was unusual that John would mention that, but was not interested in watching it.

John disappeared for a while. Jean later found out that he had been arrested. Jean contacted John’s daughter to find out why. She told Jean that John had been arrested for sex with a minor. Jean contacted the police and told them she had John’s stuff, including the sex tape. They collected it and viewed the video. It did not show John and his ex-wife. John had filmed himself having sex with a minor.

Jean was shocked and disgusted. How could she have become friends with this man? Her confidence was shaken, she felt vulnerable and emotionally raw.

Because of the serious nature of the case, a Detective Chief Inspector led the investigation. John was convicted and jailed with Jean’s help.

Months after the case ended Jean got a friendly text message from the DCI. She responded and they began texting back and forth. (This is known as “grooming” in sexual abuse cases.)

At one point the senior police officer sent her a picture of his erect penis. Jean was shocked, upset, and realised that the officer had been grooming her, abusing his position of authority for sexual gain. She immediately reported matters to another senior officer in the DCI’s force.

Police Corruption Investigation

As mentioned earlier, the IPCC’s rules are clear on what should have happened next. Matters involving “serious corruption” must always go to the IPCC for independent investigation. But what is “serious corruption”? Helpfully, HMIC defined it as the:

exercise of power or privilege of a police constable for the purposes of achieving a benefit for himself or herself, or a benefit or a detriment for another person, when a reasonable person would not expect the power or privilege to be exercised for the purpose of achieving that benefit or detriment; as defined in section 26 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015.

It went on to define “police abuse of authority for sexual gain” as:

a type of serious corruption, whereby police officers or police staff abuse their powers to sexually exploit or abuse people.

The officer’s conduct fits within both definitions. It was also a breach of the Police’s Code of Ethics  which states that police officers and staff must

not establish or pursue an improper sexual or emotional relationship with a person with whom you come into contact in the course of your work who may be vulnerable to an abuse of trust or power.

And yet, despite

  • the IPCC’s strict rules
  • HMIC guidance, and
  • strong evidence of misconduct (including my client’s account, text messages, and photographic evidence),

the officer tasked with investigating Jean’s complaint tried to get her to agree to the Force dealing with matters internally.

Jean‘s 15 years of marriage to a police officer made her suspicious of this offer. She thought that if the police investigated her complaint themselves it would be “brushed under the carpet”. In her view this was even more likely because it involved a Detective Chief Inspector, a very senior officer, who was near the end of a long and decorated career.

She refused the investigating officer’s proposal and demanded that her case be referred to the IPCC for an independent investigation. They are now involved and I am helping Jean with a civil compensation claim against the police.

Failure to Refer Police Sex Abuse to the IPCC

In my opinion, the DCI’s misconduct in Jean’s case was obvious. Despite this, the Force tried to persuade Jean to let them deal with her complaint internally. At this point we can only speculate why. I will press the police for an explanation during my client’s case.

Public Confidence in Police Sexual Exploitation Investigations

It is unclear why the majority of police forces wrongly deal with police sexual exploitation matters internally, especially when everyone agrees that this form of corruption is serious and wrong.

Police overseers have a duty to hold police forces and officers to account. One way they can do this is by strictly enforcing the IPCC’s mandatory referral rules when investigating police sexual exploitation. Only then can the public have confidence that this form of police corruption is being treated with the gravity it deserves.

Kevin Donoghue is a solicitor who represents victims of police abuse of authority for sexual gain at Donoghue Solicitors.