Can Police Face Up to Sexism?

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picture of london police

London police officers by Andrea Herrera via Flickr

Following the conviction and sentencing of a London Metropolitan Police officer in September for the rape and murder of Sarah Everard, another UK police officer was charged this month with the rape of a woman he had met online.

That has only added further fuel to an issue that has outraged much of the country.

Opinions are split on whether the police service as a whole is “misogynistic,” but the perception that British police fail to seriously investigate charges of sexual misconduct in their ranks has been hard to dismiss.

Figures obtained after a Freedom of Information Request by the BBC, based on a review of 44 of 46 UK police agencies, reveal that 2,702 police officers have been accused of sexual misconduct in the last five years.

Just three per cent of those cases went to criminal court. Of that number, eight per cent of the cases resulted in dismissal, and in another eight percent, the officer walked away with a reprimand.

The figures shouldn’t have surprised anyone. A  2019 report by the Independent newspaper in Britain found that 568 London police officers were accused of sexual assault between 2012 and 2018, with only 43 officers eventually facing disciplinary action.

The ugly statistics keep coming. A new report from the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) has published up-to-date figures reporting that referrals to them by police forces for independent investigations into allegations of sexual misconduct have almost doubled, in four years.

The figures, according to IOPC deputy director general Claire Bassett, represent an  “appalling abuse of the public’s trust.”

And they have had a “devastating impact on the people involved, who are often in a vulnerable situation,” she added.

“The police are there to help them, not exploit them.”

The fact that this needed to be said at all suggests the level of distrust that British law enforcement must now overcome.

The End Violence Against Women Coalition, which includes groups such as Rape Crisis, Refuge and Women’s Aid, said “widespread institutional failings” needed to be addressed.

“We need to see a radical overhaul of how the police respond to violence against women – especially within their own ranks,” said Denzi Ugur, deputy director of the coalition.

“This means greater accountability and urgent, co-ordinated and strategic action to address violence against women.”

The National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) have pledged to do just that.

The chair of the NPCC, Chief Constable Martin Hewitt, said in a press release earlier this month that:

We will be honest with ourselves that misogynistic societal attitudes and behaviors exist in policing, and that it matters so much because of the powers we hold and because our legitimacy is built on public confidence. 

As police leaders we need to make sure our values, leadership at all levels, vetting and other safeguards are strong to keep out people who don’t share our values and who pose a risk to the public.  But it also means each of us in policing has a responsibility to call out, challenge and report concerning or misogynistic behavior.

As a veteran of British law enforcement, that last sentence from CC Hewitt resonated with me. It was at once both the most important and the most difficult challenge to address.

How does the service ensure and instil into every officer that it is vitally important for them to take responsibility for, and be accountable for, the professional standards of each and every member of their team?

There is and always will be a deep sense of loyalty among police officers, a strong need to protect the team dynamic and belonging that exists in any group of police officers that do the work that they do.

The bravado and camaraderie imbues a culture of behavior and banter that may often stray into the unacceptable. This can regularly be ignored and allowed to grow because being in the team and staying in the team―to be liked and be “one of the boys” (or girls)―can be much more important than calling out or reporting these unacceptable behaviors.

And so the behavior becomes normalized.

WhatsApp and other social media groups where like-minded people can share derogatory views are easily formed. Photographs, pornography, sexist jokes, and explicit denigration of women and girls can become mainstream.

Societal attitudes around sex, sexual behavior, gender and gender identity have changed considerably. The British police service is very open to and accepting of this.

Unfortunately the rise of social media platforms with closed groups of followers and participants, has allowed those with troubling attitudes to proliferate and share their views. There will be many men and boys who find humor in sharing content that objectifies women and girls, and which demonstrates reflexive contempt for them.

In the police service, these people must be identified.

 We must be very clear about what misogyny and misogynistic behavior is, and how it manifests itself. The police code of conduct and the code of ethical standards must reflect its unacceptability.

It’s not yet clear that this is recognized by our leaders.  Even Dominic Raab, the Justice Secretary, appeared confused about the meaning of misogyny in an interview on breakfast TV, and at the Conservative Party Conference.

The Prime Minister, too, in an interview with the BBC, refused to be drawn on whether misogyny should be categorized as a “hate crime”.

We are now awaiting the  government’s commissioned review of the background and circumstances leading up to the Everard murder.  In addition, Baroness Louise Casey has been appointed to review the culture and standards of policing in the Metropolitan police. The review will include dip sampling of cases of sexual misconduct where officers kept their jobs.

But that can only be the beginning of a self-reckoning for law enforcement.

When a young man named Stephen Lawrence was murdered in a knife attack in 1993, a subsequent government commission led by Lord Justice Macpherson found that the investigation into his death was marred by racism.

The commission in fact concluded that the police service was institutionally racist, triggering a root and branch investigation by law enforcement agencies across the country of policies and procedures.

Mandatory diversity training was introduced, and all officers and staff were encouraged to to take responsibility their language and behaviour. Perhaps just as importantly, a culture of whistleblowing was encouraged. Officers and staff were mandated to challenge discriminatory behavior during job and promotion board interviews.

Things aren’t perfect now.  But slowly and surely the culture of policing in regards to diversity in the UK changed as a result.

Nothing less needs to happen now when it comes to police attitudes towards women and girls.

Gareth Bryon

Gareth Bryon

Can the service self-regulate by taking a deeply introspective look at its culture?

Can supervisors and managers provide the leadership needed?

Britain, unfortunately, is not alone in facing this challenge.

These are questions police forces around the world must answer as they operate in a climate where evasion is no longer acceptable.

Gareth Bryon is a former Detective Chief Superintendent who worked as a senior officer in the South Wales Police and the British Transport Police, where he led major crime investigation and forensic science services for over 30 years.

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