Do Police Take Sexual Harassment Seriously?

Photo of Kevin Donoghue, solicitor, who considers how the police are dealing with sexual harassment.
Solicitor Kevin Donoghue considers how the police are tackling sexual harassment in this blog post.

By Kevin Donoghue, Solicitor Director of Donoghue Solicitors

A recent newspaper report about police sexual harassment focused on police staff. But the findings also affect the public. Here, I look at the evidence and if the police are tackling the problem.

In July 2017 I called on the police’s overseer, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (or HMIC, now called HMICFRS), to take firm action against police officers who engage in abuse of position for a sexual purpose. This includes sexual harassment by the police when it involves members of the public.

I followed this up with a blog post highlighting the updated guidance from HMICFRS detailed in its October 2017 report. HMICFRS sent its report to all police forces. In it, HM Inspector Mike Cunningham said that

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

but

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.

So, over a year ago forces had enough guidance to deal with the problem. What happened? Sadly, it appears from a recent report by the Guardian, not much.

Police Sexual Harassment Report

The Guardian made a Freedom of Information Act request to report on police sexual harassment. It found that this kind of police abuse of position for a sexual purpose is an ongoing, serious problem. Key points from the report are:

  • Only 28 of the 43 territorial police forces responded with data. Forces that did not include the UK’s largest force, the Metropolitan Police. As a result, the Guardian’s findings likely under-reported the scale of the problem.
  • The forces who responded received almost 450 complaints from staff and members of the public about sexual harassment over the past six years.
  • Complaints included accusations against senior detectives and inspectors.
  • A fraction of the cases led to dismissal, with some officers resigning or retiring first. A mere 24 police staff were dismissed and 74 faced management action. In total 48 staff members resigned or retired after a complaint was made.
  • Professor Jennifer Brown raised concern about the system in place to deal with police sexual harassment. She said, “It’s dealt with internally, so officers can resign before they are asked to appear before a disciplinary body. They may make a calculation – due to pension etc – that it is in their interest to go and so they may resign rather than be disciplined. It’s a messy landscape which should be overhauled but in the current climate I am not sure there is appetite to do that.”

Why Police Sexual Harassment can be an Abuse of Position for a Sexual Purpose

Sexual harassment by the police can be an abuse of position for a sexual purpose when it involves the public. The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) define this kind of police abuse 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 matters because this is a form of serious corruption. Forces must refer these cases to the Independent Office for Police Conduct for independent scrutiny.

Policy

So, what are the police and their overseers doing about it? There are three key bodies involved in formulating and executing policy which every police force must follow:

  • Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS). This body independently assesses and reports on the efficiency and effectiveness of police forces and policing.
  • The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) “brings police forces in the UK together to help policing coordinate operations, reform, improve and provide value for money.”
  • The College of Policing is “the professional body for everyone who works for the police service in England and Wales. The purpose of the College is to provide those working in policing with the skills and knowledge necessary to prevent crime, protect the public, and secure public trust.”

1. HMICFRS

In October 2017 HMICFRS reported on the problem of police abuse of position for a sexual purpose. HMICFRS promised to re-inspect all police forces in 2018, saying in the 2017 report that

Ultimately, we cannot assess how well forces have implemented their plans to address our recommendation until we re-inspect them. Forces now have another opportunity to make progress before we return to this important matter in 2018 and beyond. 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 can’t find any evidence of a re-inspection following the 2017 report.

On 22 March 2018 HMICFRS Inspector Zoe Bilingham said

In the face of substantial increasing pressures, dramatic increases in demand and rising numbers of complex crimes like sexual abuse, child abuse and domestic abuse, most forces continue to do a good job in keeping us safe.

I wonder if she would stand by that statement given the Guardian reports and without an up-to-date HMICFRS report about abuse of position for sexual purpose (or gain)?

In the HMICFRS State of Policing 2017 report, (published on 12 June 2018) the authors noted that forces were still failing to address the issue of abuse of position for a sexual purpose and said

We will carry out a full inspection of this and other elements of police legitimacy in 2018. This gives forces another opportunity to show they have understood how important this issue is, and to make progress. There has also been work on this issue at a national level. It is part of the NPCC national strategy, and the Independent Police Complaints Commission has changed its referral criteria. There is also guidance from the College of Policing. We believe forces have all the information they need to get this right, so we expect to see improvement at our next inspection.

HMICFRS has either

a) not completed a targeted inspection about abuse of position for a sexual purpose since October 2017, despite saying it would do so, or

b) completed the inspection but yet to report its findings.

Either way, the public is in the dark about the official position.

2. NPCC

The 24 December article in The Guardian was not the first time this issue came up in 2018. Responding to an August 2018 report about police sexual harassment, Chief Constable Julian Williams, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for professional ethics agreed that

This behaviour falls short of the high standards set in the code of ethics, which each member of the policing profession is expected to uphold.

He said the NPCC had

committed to developing a comprehensive action plan by October (2018) that addresses the range of harassment found. Some of the behaviour described is predatory and requires the strongest response from police with individuals removed from the service.

I cannot find evidence of the “action plan” on the NPCC website despite other activity by the Council. For example, in October it issued a statement about proposed police pension changes. Does this give an insight into its priorities?

3. College of Policing

The College of Policing said nothing about the recent reports and surveys. But in April 2018 it responded to a review into believing victims at the time of reporting. This is important in police abuse of position cases. It came from a recommendation in a report titled “Independent Review of Metropolitan Police Service’s handling of non-recent sexual offence investigations.”

The College said that it would

gather views from a number of organisations to ensure there is a clear agreed position on belief across policing before a final decision on the review’s recommendations is taken.

It noted that

The role of investigators is then to keep an open mind and carry out a full and impartial investigation, to prove or disprove allegations.

It assured the public and police that

the College will now consider the views expressed, alongside other feedback from policing, before taking any further action.

It seems that the College of Policing has taken no action.

Ostriches

Has anything changed since HMICFRS reported in 2017 about how the police investigate and record sexual abuse (including sexual harassment where appropriate)? It is impossible to tell without independent inspections and official reports, but it seems unlikely. (If readers are aware of recent work by the bodies above please let me know.)

Even if there are policies and procedures in place, it appears from the Guardian articles that they are not followed. Police officers continue to abuse their position for sexual gain. This is a serious problem which affects both members of the public and police staff.

There can be no excuses for delays in tackling the problem of police sexual abuse. It won’t go away by itself. And turning a blind eye may encourage miscreants within police ranks to continue abusing their power.

Kevin Donoghue is a solicitor who represents people in police sexual abuse claims.