Hundreds of police officers are referred to the official police watchdog every year for abusing their powers for sexual gain, according to exclusive figures obtained by PoliticsHome.
Data from the Independent Office for Police Conduct shows that the highest level of corruption referrals this year were concerning police officers engaging in inappropriate sexual contact with often vulnerable members of the public.
Referrals received by the IOPC for abuse of power for sexual gains this year was 118 out of 490 overall referrals – more than double the amount received for theft, fraud, and drug supply.
Police were reported to have requested sexual favours in exchange for pursuing or not pursuing a police function as well as gratuitous sexual contact, such as inappropriate or unnecessary searches.
This year a former detective constable was jailed for 10 months following an IOPC investigation that found he had taken inappropriate photographs of a vulnerable woman without her knowledge or consent and sent inappropriate sexual messages to others.
Another police constable was dismissed after a gross misconduct hearing which found he sought to take advantage of a female victim of domestic abuse who he had met while working in the Public Protection Unit. The IOPC found evidence that the constable attempted to meet female victims of domestic abuse during and after police investigations and made sexually inappropriate comments, in some cases with the aim of starting a sexual relationship.
A spokesperson for the IOPC described abuse of power cases as “among the most serious corruption investigations we carry out”.
“We work with police to tackle this, and they have an important role to play in ensuring this behaviour is not normalised,” the spokesperson said.
“We are incredibly grateful to the brave people who have come forward to report cases of this nature – and we have seen several cases where a single complaint leads to us discovering a pattern of behaviour affecting others”.
The new data comes as an independent panel published a long-awaited report this week into the 1987 murder of Daniel Morgan accused the Metropolitan Police of “institutional corruption”. The number of referrals relating to abuse of power for sexual gain has risen dramatically since 2016, which Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) puts down to awareness being raised around the issue through the IOPC’s work with forces in England and Wales.
However, there is also concern that social media may have played a role in the rise in cases. This year the police watchdog issued a warning to serving officers about using social media to contact victims of crime for sexual activity.
In November 2019 a police officer resigned after it was found they had used social media to contact three members of the public, whom they had met during the course of their policing duties, in order to pursue sexual relationships with them.
Writing to the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC), the IOPC warned that the rise in cases they were seeing relating to social media “may be indicative of broader cultural issues within some police forces. “
Police forces are engaged with tackling the issue, with both NPCC and HMICFRS both publishing reports on the issue. However, the problem is persisting despite guidance and training being issued to forces.
There are also calls to disaggregate the data, in order to show the gendered impact of this issue and properly identify trends.
Deniz Uğur, Deputy Director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition stresses that without disaggregated data and cultural reform within police forces the problem will remain an issue.
“The prevalence of violence against women and girls in our society is unacceptably high, as are the numbers of police officers being referred into the police watchdog on complaints relating to abuse of powers for sexual gains,” Uğur said.
“Police leaders have a responsibility to ensure they are not part of the problem as a bare minimum; This means starting with appropriate and adequate collection of disaggregated data so that responses are evidence-based and, ensuring that the systems in place are able to identify, disrupt and hold to account those abusing the power and responsibility they hold occupying spaces and job roles which are intended to improve safety of women when going about their lives.”
A spokesperson for the Home Office said: “The vast majority of police officers and staff fulfil their duties to a very high standard and uphold the values of the Code of Ethics in serving their communities, but the public rightly expect that we take action against those who don’t.
“The misuse of power and authority is never acceptable and the abuse of position for a sexual purpose has a devastating effect on victims and corrodes public confidence in the police.
“We take police integrity very seriously. The barred list is one measure we have introduced to ensure the police discipline system is robust and means that the small minority of officers who do misuse their powers can be prevented from working in policing again. We have overhauled the police complaints and discipline systems in order to increase transparency and accountability.”