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Sat 23 October 2021

A Freedom of Information request analysed by the Byline Intelligence Team reveals the extent to which the capital’s police officers work in a culture of impunity around sexual misconduct

An investigation by the Byline Intelligence Team has found that more than half of the Metropolitan police officers found guilty of sexual misconduct over a four-year period to 2020 remained in their jobs.

This included officers involved in misconduct allegations relating to vulnerable victims and witnesses, as well as the abuse of colleagues.

Freedom of Information (FOI) requests and publicly available data show that, in 31 misconduct hearings between 2017 and 2020, 41% of police officers who were subject to disciplinary proceedings for sexual misconduct retained their roles following the decision. More than half of Metropolitan police officers found to have committed sexual misconduct also stayed in post: a total of 43 officers out of 83 or 52%.

The findings raise questions about accountability and wider failings in the police in tackling male violence against women and girls, and come after serving Metropolitan police officer Wayne Couzens pleaded guilty to raping and murdering 33-year-old Sarah Everard. Couzens was sacked from the Metropolitan Police in July 2021 – four months after Everard disappeared.

In response to Couzens’ guilty plea, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Dame Cressida Dick, said “on occasion, I have a bad ‘un”. However, the data suggests that there is more than one ‘bad apple’ when it comes to sexual misconduct and a lack of accountability in the country’s largest police force.  

Only one police force identified the gender of the officers found guilty of misconduct – making it difficult to measure the extent of sexism in the police. Where a forename or pronoun was used in a police hearing that was publicly available, all but one perpetrator found guilty of sexual misconduct was a man. The victims were overwhelmingly female. 

According to the FOI request, 89% of sexual offence allegations in the Metropolitan Police were made against male police officers.  

Harriet Wistrich, a lawyer and founder of The Centre for Women’s Justice, told Byline Times that there should be zero tolerance for any sexual misconduct in the police. 

“There has to be a very robust form of investigation and very, very clear repercussions,” she said. “I don’t think that anyone who’s abused their position in that way should be allowed to remain in the police force.” 

Last week, a new report commissioned by the Home Secretary following Sarah Everard’s murder called for a “radical refocus and shift” in police forces’ response to tackling violence against women and girls. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services found that there were “structural, strategic and tactical inconsistencies” in how the police handle sexual violence and domestic abuse.


Allegations of Inappropriate Behaviour 

Suffolk and Norfolk constabularies had the worst record of the 31 forces in England and Wales analysed, with 70% of police (seven out of 10) officers found guilty of sexual misconduct remaining in their jobs.

In 2018, a Norfolk police officer retained their role after being found guilty of having sex on duty. The following year, a police officer who sent inappropriate messages to a colleague remained in the Suffolk constabulary. 

Other allegations at these forces included inappropriate touching or highly sexualised comments towards victims and witnesses. 

Further north, a West Yorkshire police officer who attempted to pay for sex over an app remained in post and received a written warning. 

Many of the cases identified related to sexually inappropriate behaviour towards female colleagues. Almost half – 44% – of victims in sexual misconduct cases were police officers. 

An officer in the Cambridgeshire force remained in their job after a misconduct hearing found that they had made inappropriate physical contact with a female colleague that they were tutoring. 

In Avon and Somerset, a police officer who sexually harassed two police community support officers retained their role. PC Paul Fortune told a junior officer: “I have a really high sex drive so if you are in ever in need of a partner let me know.” He also massaged her shoulders without consent. PC Fortune also made comments to another junior officer about her “special bits”. However, this case was not included in the Byline Intelligence Team’s analysis because Avon and Somerset Police have not yet published misconduct hearings that took place in 2020. 

Not all individuals accused of sexual misconduct kept their jobs. A Hertfordshire police officer who was found to be part of a paedophile ring was dismissed without notice. Special Constable Simon Wintle was found guilty of making indecent images of children and inciting sexual activity with a child. 

In Dorset, a detective lost his post after he was found guilty of sexually assaulting a female colleague in her home. The misconduct hearing heard how the police officer had kissed the victim against her will, removed her top and bra and touched her without consent. The detective had previously made inappropriate comments to the victim, including detailing his sexual preferences and telling her that she had a “nice bum”. The detective was dismissed without notice, but the Bournemouth Echo reported that he did not face criminal charges after the Crown Prosecution Service ruled that there was insufficient evidence.  


Undermining Trust

Anne Stebbings, director of Manchester Rape Crisis, expressed concern to Byline Times that allowing men guilty of sexual misconduct to remain in post would undermine women’s trust in the police. 

Prosecution rates for rape are at a historic low, with fewer than one in 60 rape cases leading to a charge in England and Wales. 

“As a service working to represent the interest of victims, it makes it very difficult to have faith in the police if they seem unable to deal appropriately with misconduct in their own ranks,” Stebbings said.

As well as a lack of trust, Manchester Rape Crisis counsellor Morag Borszcz believes that a failure to sanction police officers found guilty of sexual misconduct normalises a sexist culture within forces that can inhibit women’s access to justice. She argues that removing guilty officers from their jobs could deter colleagues from indulging in similar inappropriate behaviour. 

“If a police officer sees their colleagues doing wrong and getting away with it, what’s to stop them doing the same?” she told Byline Times. “Obviously there are other factors, but the culture of impunity in the police is partly to blame for the number of sexual misconduct cases.” 

Marcus Griffiths, ethics and professional standards lead for the College of Policing, told Byline Times that “the vast majority of police officers and staff in England and Wales consistently conduct themselves in accordance with the high professional standards the public rightly expect”.

“Any allegation that a police officer has fallen below those standards will be taken extremely seriously and assessed on a case by case basis,” Griffiths said. “If it is found there is a case to answer, it will then be dealt with through the appropriate misconduct procedure.”

A spokesperson for Norfolk and Suffolk Constabulary said: “Norfolk Constabulary and Suffolk Constabulary take allegations of this nature very seriously given the nature of the role of those who work in the police in a trusted position. We have robust processes in place to deal with complaints and allegations made against officers and those in police roles. When a misconduct hearing takes place, this process is carried out by a panel made up of an independent, legally qualified chair, an independent member and a senior police officer who also provides guidance on any police-related matters. The chair, and the panel’s decision, is independent and based on the evidence given. Allegations involving an abuse of position for a sexual purpose, are referred to the Independent Office for Police Conduct for investigation.

“It should be noted that each of the allegations listed within our original response is individual and would require further context to fully explain the outcome. For example, such cases would include allegations which are proved to be false, but are required to be recorded on the initial information provided. Both forces are relatively small in terms of officer numbers, this means the percentage of sexual misconduct cases where officers are found guilty and remain in their role may seem high but the overall numbers per year are very low compared to larger forces.”

This article was updated at 14.30 on 20 September 2021 to include a reply from Norfolk and Suffolk Constabulary.

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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