Conversation article: Police forces must take firm and unified stance on tackling sexual abuse of position


Fay Sweeting, Bournemouth University

PC Stephen Mitchell of Northumbria Police was jailed for life in 2011 for two rapes, three indecent assaults and six counts of misconduct in a public office, having targeted some of society’s most vulnerable for his own sexual gratification. The case prompted an urgent review into the extent of police sexual misconduct and the quality of internal investigations. One of the recommendations required forces to publicly declare the outcomes of misconduct hearings.

A review of police sexual misconduct in the UK by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary revealed on average 218 cases a year between 2014 and 2016, or around one case per 1,000 officers. A follow-up report from last year shows 415 cases over the following three years, an average of around 138 a year.

But while these serious crimes are still relatively rare, sexual misconduct is a serious matter with implications for the public’s view and trust of the police as an institution. In many cases, the officers’ actions have potential to re-victimise those who are already victims of domestic abuse or rape. Such abuse of position is also likely to be under-reported, with victims fearing they will not be believed.

Compared to other forms of police corruption, sexual crimes committed by serving officers is under-researched, with the majority of existing research focusing on the US and Canada. I am police officer conducting PhD research on sexual misconduct among police officers and barriers to reporting sexual misconduct. In a new paper, my colleagues and I sought to explore the situation in England and Wales by examining the outcomes of police disciplinary proceedings.

Analysing documents from 155 police misconduct hearings, we identified eight different behaviours:

  1. Voyeurism – for example using a police helicopter camera to observe women sunbathing topless in their private gardens.
  2. Sexual assaults, relationships or attempted sexual relationships with victims or other vulnerable persons. While the national figures show some 117 reports of sexual assaults by police officers, the disciplinary hearings we studied featured primarily cases of professional malpractice through consensual but inappropriate relationships that fell below the threshold of criminal behaviour.
  3. Sexual relationships with offenders. Similarly, while the data was heavily sanitised for publication there were only a very small number of cases where assault was involved. In most cases, these were consensual relationships, albeit inappropriate ones.
  4. Sexual contact involving juveniles, including the making of or distribution of pornographic images of children.
  5. Behaviour towards police officers, including sexual assaults on colleagues and sexually inappropriate language and behaviour.
  6. Sex on duty, chiefly between colleagues or officers and their partners.
  7. Unwanted sexual approaches to members of the public – for example, pressuring a member of the public who is not a victim or witness for their phone number and then sending sexually inappropriate messages.
  8. Pornography, such as posting intimate images of former partners on revenge porn sites and, in one case, using a police camera to record a pornographic film.

It’s useful to see how the offences in England and Wales differ compared to the US and Canada. For example, US researcher Timothy Maher defines what he calls “sexual shakedowns”, a category of offence not recorded in the UK, where an officer demands a sexual service, for example in return for not making an arrest.

This is particularly prevalent in cases involving sex workers, and also other marginalised women such as those with low education levels, or those experiencing homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse or mental health issues. In a US study of women drawn from records of drug courts, 96% had sex with an officer on duty, 77% had repeated exchanges, 31% reported rape by an officer, and 54% were offered favours by officers in exchange for sex.

When US officers targeted offenders for sexual gain, it was often for the purpose of humiliation or dominance – an unnecessary strip search, for example. On the other hand, our research indicates the problem in the UK is more of officers targeting vulnerable victims or witnesses in order to initiate a sexual relationship.

Unhappy woman with face in hands
Women who are already suffering domestic violence are often among those police officers have had inappropriate sexual relationships with, considered an abuse of position.
Mark Nazh/Shutterstock

The most common sexual offences by officers

We found the most common type of sexual misconduct was officers having sexual relationships with witnesses or victims, accounting for nearly a third of all cases. Many of these victims had histories of domestic abuse, substance abuse or mental illness, making them highly vulnerable.

In general, the victims revealed many of the same risk factors as those found in people targeted by sex offenders. There are also similarities between the actions of these police officers and similar offences by prison officers or teachers, who are also more likely to select victims they believe are easily controllable and less likely to speak out.

The second most common type involved the way police officers treated their colleagues – most often a higher-ranking male officer towards a lower-ranking or less experienced female officer. Generally, higher ranking officers have less contact with the public and more contact with staff, which may at least partially explain this finding. But in the US and Canada this type of sexual misconduct is more likely to be directed towards a colleague of the same rank.

As in the US, we found that the vast majority of officers involved in sexual misconduct are male. For the handful of female officers in our sample, almost all were involved in sexual relationships with offenders. Hearing documents do not provide in-depth information, and in media coverage – such as that of PC Tara Woodley, who helped her sex offender partner evade police – it is harder to understand who held the power and control in these relationships.

Misconduct hearings, with variable results

The outcomes of sexual misconduct hearings differed, with officers more likely to be dismissed for having sex with victims in forces from the south of England than in the north, while officers having sex on duty were more likely to be dismissed in the Midlands. Officers above the rank of sergeant were more frequently dismissed than constables, suggesting there is less tolerance of misconduct for those of higher rank. Compare this to similar cases in the NHS, where nurses involved in sexual misconduct are more likely to be struck off than doctors.

Our findings suggest that police forces in England and Wales are taking sexual misconduct seriously, with 94% of all cases leading to formal disciplinary actions, and 70% leading to dismissal. But the variation of outcomes across the country is a concern, and there is evidence of misconduct hearing panels not following the College of Policing’s guidance, as seen in a recent case of racist comments by West Midlands police officers.

I believe that the majority of my colleagues uphold the moral and ethical values expected of them, but more needs to be done. The HM Inspectorate of Constabulary’s report from last year argues that police forces are not moving quickly enough to deal with the issue, citing lack of investment, training and poor record keeping. There can be no place in the police for those who would abuse their position.

Fay Sweeting, PhD Candidate in in Forensic Psychology, Bournemouth University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.