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The Abuse of Police Powers to Perpetuate Sexual Violence

View profile for Emily Streule
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The National Police Chief’s Council has reported that confidence in the police has grown over recent years. However,  in the wake of some high profile and large scale sexual abuse investigations, a 2016 report commissioned by now prime minister, Theresa May, has announced that the ‘most serious’ form of corruption facing Police in England and Wales is the abuse of authority for sexual gain.

This issue was first addressed in 2012, when the Independent Police Complains Commission published a report alongside the Association of Chief Police Officers, entitled ‘The Abuse of Police Powers to Perpetuate Sexual Violence’. The report was declared by the then head of the IPCC as ‘a first step in understanding the scale and nature of the problem and setting out the way forward’.

This 2012 report detailed the deliberate targeting of vulnerable women by police officers for the purpose of sexual exploitation. It concluded that improvements should be made to the initial vetting of officers entering the forces, general supervision and the collection of intelligence relating to suspected misconduct. Various formal recommendations were made, advising that individual police forces create a specific code of conduct setting out standards of behaviour, asking that forces ensure that all cases are referred to IPCC at an early stage and ensuring that all allegations of sexual abuse against police officers are investigated thoroughly.

However, four years later, it appears that little has been done to address this issue. A more recent report, released in December 2016 by Michael Cunningham, HM Inspector of Constabulary, concluded that some forces are still failing to recognise sexual exploitation by officers as a ‘form of serious corruption’, leaving many cases uninvestigated and improperly dealt with.

Since March 2014, there have been 436 allegations made of abuse of authority by police officers for sexual gain. Of these 436 allegations, almost 40% involved abuse of victims of domestic violence.

It was discovered that fewer than half of these allegations had been referred to the IPCC and the amount of dismissals and disciplinary decisions following findings of sexual abuse was considered to be inadequate. The report concluded that officers often did not have a clear enough understanding of the boundaries that should be maintained when dealing with vulnerable people and that almost half of all police forces in the country did not have adequate facilities to monitor those officers who may be accessing police databases to deliberately target vulnerable victims.

The 2016 report found that all forces in England and Wales had introduced new vetting procedures of officers, as recommended by the IPCC in 2012, but that almost half of police forces had failed to complete retrospective vetting procedures or reviews of officers upon promotion to high risk roles or upon changes in their personal circumstances.

It was concluded that one fifth of police forces were ‘still failing to develop corruption-related intelligence sufficiently’, with one third of all counter-corruption units suffering from a lack of resources that meant that they could not effectively investigate incoming and existing allegations.

Whilst these figures provide an overview of this issue, it is impossible to assess the scale of the problem. The current position is that police forces are not required to record whether allegations made about officers potentially involve corrupt behaviour. Different forces have different procedures for the recording of complaints, misconduct and corruption, and it is therefore impossible to gain a clear picture. Michael Cunningham, HM Inspector of Constabulary, has said that ‘it is at least possible, probably likely, that the problem is more serious than the numbers that have been reported back to us.’ He concludes his report by  stating that the HMIC ‘takes the issue of the abuse of authority for sexual gain extremely seriously, not only for the devastating effect that it has on those who are victims of it but also the deeply corrosive effect that each case has on the trust that the public have in the police’.

Following the publication by the HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, has said that ‘The misconduct discovered in this report is shocking – it undermines the justice and public confidence and there is no place in the police for anyone guilty of this sort of abuse’.

It is not suggested that such abuses of power are commonplace within the 200,000+ police officers employed in England and Wales. However, the fact that recommendations for improvement are not being followed uniformly and across the board is of concern. Even if this lack of rigorous implementation of remedial and practical policy allows just a small minority of officers to abuse their position for sexual gain and either evade detection entirely or avoid more serious consequences this still remains significantly worrying.