A police force has settled on payouts of more than £120,000 to officers examined by a sex pest doctor.
Dr Reginald Bunting, who served with Avon and Somerset police for more than 30 years, conducted “woefully or grossly” unacceptable medical examinations, an independent investigation found in 2017.
“He would make officers expose their genitals and make officers jump up and down while naked, or make them walk around with books on their head while they were dressed only in their underwear,” said a spokeswoman for legal firm Leigh Day.
The latest round of payouts has seen the force reach settlements totalling £127,250 with 17 officers represented by Leigh Day in civil claims.
The force says it is sorry the victims were not listened to sooner and medical examinations in Avon and Somerset are now “backed by robust policies and practises to ensure this can never happen again”.
The Leigh Day spokeswoman said: “The force failed to investigate complaints about the GP and occupational health specialist who was found to have subjected new recruits and serving police officers to sexual assaults and humiliating treatment during medical examinations.
“His behaviour was joked about at work and other officers would comment openly that he was a pervert. His inappropriate behaviour appeared to be an open secret within the Constabulary, but no action was taken when complaints were made.
“Former police recruits reported that during pre-recruitment medical examinations, Dr Bunting would carry out inappropriate and unnecessary touching of genitals and breasts.”
The doctor, who served with the force between 1972 and 2004, died in 2013 — two years before retired officers raised concerns which led to an independent investigation.
The Leigh Day spokeswoman said: “When recruits complained in 1992 and 1998, one sergeant allegedly asked why ‘someone like him’ wanted to be in this kind of job and another allegedly laughed and said ‘that’s the way things are’.”
Operation Hay, the independent probe commissioned by Avon and Somerset police, investigated 110 complaints about Dr Bunting and concluded the force had failed to keep its staff safe during medical examinations.
It found 44 cases in which Dr Bunting fell below “common and acceptable” medical practice and 10 “woefully or grossly below” that standard.
“The report said that had Dr Bunting been alive, there would have been enough evidence to interview him under caution as a criminal suspect,” Leigh Day added.
The 17 officers represented by the firm were examined by Dr Bunting between 1986 and 1998. Each has secured compensation worth between £2,500 and £14,500, including therapy costs.
The examinations took place when the claimants were aged between 18 and 48. The force will offer them letters of apology, says Leigh Day.
“Many were only at the start of their police careers and working in the force was the fulfilment of a childhood dream,” the firm added.
“As such, they did not feel able to complain, especially as the examinations were the final stage in the recruitment process.”
In a statement, one of the victims said the force had “several opportunities to curtail Dr Bunting’s perverted activities” but instead “chose to brush the allegations aside” and allow him to continue.
“My experience has affected me throughout the whole of my police career and most of my adult life,” they added. “The force claims to protect the public. It is time that they protect their own staff.”
Another, a female former police constable, said: “The impact of Dr Bunting’s abuse and the investigation has taken a significant toll upon my wellbeing and mental health. I trusted in Avon and Somerset as an employee but was let down badly by an organisation that was meant to keep me safe.
“I was appalled that I informed Avon & Somerset Police about Dr Bunting’s behaviour and nothing was done by an organisation that clearly knew what he was doing. Time has passed and the case has now allowed me some closure.”
Leigh Day solicitor Catriona Rubens said the firm’s clients are “invariably disappointed and angry” at the force’s handling of the complaints and its response to Operation Hay.
“They strongly feel that, as police officers, they are trained to prevent and detect crime, and that the Constabulary failed to do this under its own roof,” she said.
Leigh Day partner Alison Millar added: “Doctors like Bunting occupy a unique position in that their role authorises them to conduct intimate examinations. Unnecessary examinations can appear to be legitimised in these circumstances.
“Patients can often be reluctant to question the need for such examinations because of the doctor’s authority and the trusted position their occupy. There may also be the fear that the answer will be bad news.
“For these reasons, the abuse of his position by Dr Bunting was particularly egregious and serious. I am not at all surprised that many of our clients experienced psychological symptoms, anger or distress many years after the examinations.”
Dr Bunting was the chief medical officer at Avon and Somerset Police between 1990 and 1997. Deputy Chief Constable Gareth Morgan said in 2017 that, had Dr Bunting still been alive, there was enough “evidence to interview him under caution as a criminal suspect”.
Addressing the latest payouts, a force spokeswoman said: “Dr Bunting stopped working for Avon and Somerset police in 2004 and died in 2013 aged 80.
“Following an independent investigation led at our request by another force, in 2017 we accepted that 44 medical examinations fell below a common or acceptable standard for the time with 10 falling “woefully or grossly below” those standards.
“At the same time, we also accepted that there were several missed opportunities when concerns had previously been raised to the constabulary and wrote and apologised to all the individuals that we were aware had been affected by this investigation.
“We thank the individuals who raised concerns about Dr Bunting’s behaviour – it was right to do so and we’re sorry that they were not listened to sooner. Their tenacity in holding us to account means that medical examinations in Avon and Somerset are now backed by robust policies and practices to ensure this can never happen again.
“We have comprehensive procedures in place for when officers or staff members make complaints to us. These include putting in place appropriate welfare provisions, carrying out robust investigations and seeking independent investigations by other police forces when appropriate.
“Despite the difficulties caused by the death of Dr Bunting and the length of time that had passed, we worked closely with Leigh Day to resolve their clients’ complaints. We recognised the need for psychological treatment were supported by medical evidence and offered to fund that treatment in full in all of the relevant cases.”
The new settlements secured by Leigh Day are not the first payouts in the case. The BBC reported in 2018 that it had learned the force “tried to reduce payouts” to officers examined by Dr Bunting, in “an attempt to save money”.
The force was taken to an employment tribunal by nine claimants after they were told their payouts could be reduced.
“They claimed the force looked into reducing payouts because the force believed some of the awards may have been excessive due to them having been authorised by Dr Bunting in an attempt to cover up his actions,” the BBC reported.
An Avon and Somerset police spokesman told the broadcaster in 2018 that the force believed the claims were “without merit” and the force “would have contested the matter in the tribunal had it proceeded any further”, but proceedings were halted by both parties.