Hundreds of police officers are being accused of sexually abusing victims and suspects in what a senior police watchdog has called “the most serious corruption issue facing the service”.
Forces across England and Wales received 436 allegations of abuse of power for sexual gain against 306 police officers, 20 police community support officers and eight staff in the two years to March but inspectors believe the problem is even more prevalent than the numbers suggest.
Despite the large numbers, there is evidence that only 40 officers or staff have been dismissed for abusing authority for sexual gain in a similar period.
Vulnerable individuals, including domestic abuse victims, alcohol and drug addicts, sex workers and arrested suspects were among those targeted by officers and staff, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) said.
Victim groups have said the findings are “deeply concerning” and involved some of the most vulnerable people in society.
Mike Cunningham, inspector of constabulary and former chief constable of Staffordshire police, said: “This is the most serious corruption issue facing the service. What can be worse than a guardian abusing the trust and confidence of an abused person? There can be no greater violation of public trust.”
“It is probably more likely the problem is more serious than the numbers reported back to us,” he added.
“In many cases the victims are vulnerable people. They are victims of domestic abuse, they’re victims who might have been arrested and they have drug or alcohol dependency. It is an exploitation of power where the guardian becomes the abuser.”
One of the most high-profile cases of police officers abusing their power in recent history was that of Stephen Mitchell, who was jailed for life in 2011 for raping and sexually assaulting vulnerable women he had arrested.
Mitchell, who was a constable with Northumbria police, abused heroin addicts, shoplifters and a disabled teenager by offering them help while in custody, then demanding sexual favours afterwards.
Earlier this year, DS Robert Dawson, a Metropolitan police officer who had sex with a vulnerable alleged rape victim, was formally dismissed from the force. A tribunal heard that in 2010, while investigating an allegation of serious sexual assault, Dawson engaged in an inappropriate sexual relationship with the victim.
PC Simon Salway, who had sex with vulnerable witnesses and victims of crime, and fathered a child with one of the women he exploited, was found guilty of six charges of misconduct in a public office at Luton crown court last year.
HMIC found that more than a third (39%) of the allegations of abuse of authority for sexual gain involved victims of domestic abuse. As part of its research the inspectorate carried out an online survey of domestic abuse practitioners between July and August. Sixty-eight practitioners (16%) of the 414 who took part said victims of domestic abuse had disclosed that an officer or member of police staff had abused their authority to exploit them or develop an inappropriate relationship with them.
The chief executive of the domestic violence charity Refuge, Sandra Horley, said: “Widespread reports of police officers exploiting women for sexual gain … are horrific – but unsurprising.
“Refuge is glad HMIC’s report has shone a light on this issue, following a consultation with domestic violence practitioners including our frontline staff. The police are meant to protect the public from harm; how can women be expected to report their abuse, if they fear the police will abuse them all over again? Women have the right to safety and protection.
“Refuge commends the work HMIC has already done in improving the police response to domestic violence; we hope this report will mean an end to what is an appalling abuse of power.”
Mark Castle, chief executive of the independent charity Victim Support, said: “These allegations are deeply concerning. The victims involved are some of the most vulnerable people in our society, who have been exploited by the people they should be able to trust the most, the police.
“In order to maintain public confidence in the police it’s critical that forces recognise this behaviour as the serious corruption that it is and report all cases to the IPCC to ensure that they are thoroughly and robustly investigated.”
The HMIC findings formed part of a broader inspection of police legitimacy, which concluded victims’ satisfaction with the way they were treated by police remained high. The investigation was ordered by the then home secretary, Theresa May.
But the inspectorate said forces still needed to become more proactive in rooting out officers and staff abusing power for sexual gain. This could involve profiling officers to single out those who might be likely to commit such abuse.
Cunningham said one of the reasons the inspectorate believed the figures belied a greater problem was that forces in England and Wales did not have a consistent and coherent approach to tackling the problem.
Not all forces class the abuse of authority for sexual gain as a serious corruption issue, which HMIC says they should. This would mean any allegation would be automatically referred to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) for investigation.
HMIC was only able to find 40 cases on the national disapproved register in which officers or staff were dismissed for abusing power for sexual gain during the period in which more than 400 allegations were received.
“What’s less clear is what’s happening with those allegations, how those allegations are being pursued, how they translate into gross misconduct hearings and sackings,” Cunningham said.
HMIC said the problem remained despite recommendations in a 2012 IPCC report on the issue, which appear to have not been acted on.
In her speech to the Police Federation conference earlier this year, May said: “We know of officers who develop inappropriate relationships with victims of domestic abuse. They have ignored their professional duty and their moral responsibility, and instead abused their position of power to exploit victims. We do not know the true scale of this, but everyone in this room will know it goes on far more than we might care to admit.”