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Sat 23 October 2021

Freedom of Information requests analysed by the Byline Intelligence Team reveal that police officers are failing in their duty of care to vulnerable victims and witnesses when investigating claims relating to sexual assault

Nine out of 12 police officers across England and Wales who abused their positions or failed to properly investigate sex crimes between 2017 and 2020 remained in post, an investigation by the Byline Intelligence Team can reveal.

The investigation looked at the complaints outcomes in 18 police forces in England and Wales following numerous allegations that officers behaved unprofessionally or inappropriately in incidents involving sexual harm, where the officers were found guilty. Of the 12 instances found, only three officers were disciplined. None were arrested and three were sacked. All 12 instances involved male police officers.  

One of the most serious offences involved an officer in Hertfordshire engaging in an inappropriate texting conversation with a 15-year-old victim of sexual assault. The incident was heard by an independent misconduct panel which issued the officer in question a final written warning. 

Other officers were found to have failed, since 2017, to investigate sexual assault allegations, to safeguard victims of exploitation, and to record an allegation of rape. 

The criminal justice system is already facing criticism for failing to prosecute rape cases, with fewer than one in 60 rape cases leading to a charge in England and Wales. The findings also come after Wayne Cozens, a serving officer in the Metropolitan Police pleaded guilty to murdering 33-year-old Sarah Everard earlier this year; while two officers in the same force were forced to apologise after taking and sharing photos of the bodies of Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, who were both murdered in 2020. 

The analysis raises questions about whether enough has been done to ensure that the police always provides a safe service for survivors of sexual violence. 

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Taking Advantage of Victims 

Of the 12 officers identified, three police officers found to have kept their jobs following allegations of mishandling sex crimes were in the Northumbrian force. The cases were heard by an independent panel which decided the appropriate sanctions.

One officer sent sexually explicit texts to a witness in a serious sexual offence case. He was given a written warning but remained in post. Another, who explained a sexual violence allegation in an “unprofessional” manner, also continued to serve in the Northumbrian police force. 

In the Humberside police force, an officer was dismissed after he failed to review CCTV evidence in a rape case. The Yorkshire Post reported that he had ignored instructions to watch the CCTV at a normal speed and missed footage of the victim with two men. Detectives told the misconduct hearing that they could have issued a public appeal for information if the officer had noticed the suspects. 

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Harriet Wistrich, a lawyer and director of the Centre for Women’s Justice, told Byline Times. The organisation, in collaboration with the End Violence Against Women Coalition, Imkaan and Rape Crisis England and Wales, brought a ‘super complaint’ against 15 police forces last year about their handling of sexual violence and domestic abuse committed by officers. 


Losing Trust 

The failures to hold police accountable for gross misconduct when investigating rape and sexual assault risks putting women off reporting rape in what is already an atmosphere of low trust in the police and the criminal justice system. 

“It’s probably much more widespread because these are only the cases that have been identified and gone through to misconduct,” Wistrich said. “There must be a huge number of cases that are never reported because women don’t have confidence in reporting such cases to the police.”

Fewer than 20% of rape victims currently report attacks to the police. Rape prosecutions fell to a record low this year: only 1.6% of reported rapes resulted in someone being charged. 

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and Ministry of Justice’s own figures show that, while rapes reported to the police have nearly tripled and were up by 173% between 2014 and 2018, the number of cases charged and sent to court have decreased dramatically.

Reasons given by the CPS for not taking rape cases forward include women being intoxicated, women sharing sexually explicit WhatsApp messages with alleged perpetrators, and women being in relationships with the men they have accused. 

The Home Secretary has said that the safety of women and girls is an “absolute priority”, but critics fear that her new strategy to tackle gender-based violence does not go far enough. 

Andrea Simon, director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, told Byline Times: “It is clear that women and girls are being routinely let down by the police and a broken justice system that there is no urgency to fixing. Instead of addressing these failings, police powers are being bolstered in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which fails to address the underlying causes of violence against women and girls and will result in the disproportionate surveillance and criminalisation of black and minority ethnic communities. We need clear action, including addressing sexist and racist policing cultures wherever they are found, if we are to rebuild women and girls’ trust in the police.” 

A Home Office spokesperson said that “any allegation of sexual misconduct against police officers is treated extremely seriously and has no place in policing” and that “it is vital for the public to have trust and confidence in the police”.

“We know the impact it can have on the public when an officer commits serious misconduct, it can undermine the very consent which allows officers to fight crime and keep us safe,” they added.

The Byline Intelligence Team analysed 18 forces’ misconduct hearings between 2017 and 2020, although some forces only provided data for part of that time period. Some misconduct hearings involve more than one officer, but the exact number is not clear. The statistics are based on the minimum number of officers involved. 

In a statement, a police spokesperson for Hertfordshire police said: “Hertfordshire Constabulary expects the highest standards of integrity and behaviour and officers and staff who fail on these standards will be subject to disciplinary procedures. The officer’s conduct has been found to fall short of these standards and he has been dealt with accordingly by the independent misconduct panel.”

Northumbria Police did not respond to Byline Times‘ request for comment.

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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