U.K. Police Struggle to Curb Abuse of Women by Their Own Officers

LONDON – James Mason was on duty at a North London police station when a young woman arrived to report that she had just been robbed on a city street. Already shocked, the woman was made even more nervous by Mr. Mason’s questions: What clothes did you wear to work? Did she have a boyfriend? Would you like to go to dinner?

When she contacted him for updates on the case, he continued to aggressively pursue her. And when she told him it was out of line, he replied in an email, “Actually, you are positively encouraged to speak to victims,” adding, “It’s all part of the friendly and approachable face of the Metropolitan Police. It is the rejection that is frowned upon. “

Mason would rise through the ranks of the London Metropolitan Police Service, eventually becoming detective chief inspector, while the young woman remained silent about the 2011 episode, saying in an interview that she did not feel qualified to report until the year. last.

At a disciplinary hearing last month, in which the woman was granted anonymity, Mason was found to have been seriously misused for abusing his power as an officer for a sexual purpose. However, instead of being fired, Mason was given a final written warning this month, a ruling that shocked its victim but reflected what criminal justice experts describe as a systemic failure within Britain’s police forces as they fight to control or discipline employees who abuse women.

In August, a former Northumbrian police officer was sentenced on charges of indecent assault and misconduct for an exploitative sexual relationship with two victims of domestic abuse. This month, a Nottinghamshire police officer was fired and banned from duty after sending sexually suggestive messages to a woman who was pulled over while driving. Also this month, a disciplinary panel found that a London police officer’s sexual relationship with a woman he was investigating for a crime constituted Misconduct.

Such behavior by officers has sparked outrage among women, human rights groups and politicians across the UK, reaching a pinnacle in September following the sentencing of Wayne Couzens, a London police officer who he abused his position to kidnap, rape and murder Sarah Everard.

Police have acknowledged errors in the background investigation of Mr. Couzens, who received a life sentence, raising broader concerns that forces across the country were not doing enough to identify and apprehend criminals in their ranks.

The young woman pursued by Mason, who requested that her name be withheld because she had been attacked online previously, said she felt the police were more concerned with preserving Mason’s career than their safety. “They shouldn’t be protected,” he said in the interview.

Mr. Mason, who apologized at his disciplinary hearing, retained his position as chief detective inspector. Efforts to reach him through the Metropolitan Police were unsuccessful.

About 2,000 police personnel nationwide have been accused of sexual misconduct, including rape, over the past four years, according to statistics released in a Channel 4 investigation. Only 8 percent of them were fired. In almost 60 percent of the cases, no action was taken against the defendants. The vast majority of cases, even those in which misconduct has been identified, never lead to criminal charges, according to the investigation.

Zoë Billingham, a former inspector for an independent watchdog group that reviews police surveillance in Britain, said that while Couzens’ crime was an extreme case, it had to be viewed in a broader context.

“The narrative shouldn’t be: ‘This was an aberration, this was an exception, he was a bad egg,'” he said. “It should be, ‘What do we do in the police force to stop this misogynistic tolerance of inappropriate behavior?'”

While misbehaviors make up a small number of officers overall, Ms Billingham said these cases exist within a culture where officers act with impunity and in close ranks when allegations arise.

Police officers say they have made some progress. The Independent Office of Police Conduct, an outside watchdog group, released new data last week showing that the number of officers facing disciplinary proceedings for abusing their positions for sexual purposes has increased dramatically in the past three years.

From 2018 to 2021, 66 officers and police personnel faced disciplinary proceedings as a result of the investigations, 42 of them in the past year alone, and misconduct was demonstrated in 63 of those cases, according to the new figures.

Officials say the increase is a direct result of efforts to address this problem and hold those responsible to account. Many cases of sexual misconduct are classified as corruption due to abuse of power and automatically lead to an investigation by the watchdog group. But some police forces were not treating the cases as corruption, so they were not referred to the group.

For victims, like the woman who was assaulted, the experience can leave an indelible mark.

The harassment broke his trust in the system, he said. When she found herself in an abusive relationship years later, she said, she was hesitant to call the police.

But in recent years, after observing the #MeToo movement and after a lot of personal growth, she said she felt it was time to report the episode.

Amid increased public scrutiny, local and national police and oversight bodies have taken some steps to address the concerns. The Ministry of the Interior, the government office responsible for surveillance, announced an investigation into the issues raised by the murder of Sarah Everard.

The London Police Department, which did not respond to a request for comment, announced your own independent review of standards and practicesand plans to increase the number of investigators investigating police abuse. He also plans to create a dedicated team to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct and domestic abuse.

The Council of National Police Chiefs has directed Britain’s police chiefs to review all allegations of sexual misconduct, indecent exposure and domestic abuse involving officers in the past two years.

Some former officers have openly advocated a zero tolerance approach to sexual misconduct and believe officers should be fired immediately after an investigation confirms their guilt.

Janet Hills, a recently retired detective sergeant who served in the Metropolitan Police for three decades and was also president of the National Association of Black Police, said transparency was key.

“They need to say it and be very cheeky and clear,” he said, “without slapping the wrist.”

He said that in his experience, internal misconduct procedures were broken because they asked the police to investigate their colleagues, which discouraged whistleblowers.

“We are asked to mark our own homework,” he said.

Those within the force who have tried to report misbehavior have often run into obstacles. Paige Kimberley, a longtime former officer, was denied a consulting job with the police after reporting Vulgar, sexist and abusive messages in a WhatsApp group. with male colleagues. This month he won a labor action against the London police.

Ms. Kimberley’s attorney, Terry Falcão, who is also a former police officer, said the case reflected a broader “kids club” culture. “They treated this like it was nothing,” he said.

Sue Fish, a former Nottinghamshire Police Chief, who has spoken about your own experiences of sexual assault by colleagues, said it had been inundated with messages from current and former officers who tried to blow the whistle. Some have seen investigations against him amid a defensive and insular culture.

“British police are brilliant at many things,” Fish said. “But it systematically fails women and girls, it systemically fails people internally, and it systemically fails marginalized or minority communities.”

Ms. Fish said consistent leadership was needed to identify and eradicate the misogyny at the heart of the problem.

“Part of his narrative has been that Couzens was a bad apple and he’s rotting the barrel,” he said. But in fact, he added, “there are a lot of bad things in the barrel” that keep good officers at bay and can empower predators.

“So really,” he said, “the key issue is the barrel.”

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