A Wake Up Call About Police Sexual Abuse

By Iain Gould, solicitor and specialist in civil actions against the police

I was saddened, but not surprised, by the conclusions reached this week by the Police ‘Watchdog’, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) that more than half of the Police Forces in England and Wales have failed to implement plans to stop Police personnel abusing their positions for a sexual purpose.

This is a matter of grave concern to us all. As the introduction to the report states –

Police officers and police staff hold a privileged position within our society; they can use a range of coercive powers and under certain circumstances they are allowed access to people’s homes, businesses and personal information. Often members of the public are at their most vulnerable when they come into contact with the police. It is therefore imperative that all police officers and police staff act with the utmost integrity at all times and do not seek to take any personal advantage from the position they hold.

No one wants to believe that police officers and staff – whose primary function is to help the most vulnerable people in our society – would ever be involved in taking advantage of people in such a way. Nonetheless, such cases do occur, and when they do they can have a devastating effect on the lives of individual victims and corrode the trust and confidence both they and the wider public have in the police. Police forces must therefore work tirelessly to prevent and seek out this form of serious corruption and to pursue the perpetrators.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) has recognised the very serious nature of this type of misconduct and has defined the abuse of position for a sexual purpose as-

Any behaviour by a police officer or police staff member, whether on or off duty, that takes advantage of their position as a member of the police service to misuse their position, authority or powers in order to pursue a sexual or improper emotional relationship with any member of the public. This includes: committing a sexual act, initiating sexual contact with, or responding to any perceived sexually motivated behaviour from another person; entering into any communication that could be perceived as sexually motivated or lewd; or for any other sexual purpose.

Police Officers in the course of their duty are invested with a special trust – given a position of power and authority over members of the public, and access to the personal lives of members of the public when they are at their most emotionally vulnerable, in the aftermath of crimes of violence and abuse. Those Officers must therefore be held to the highest standards of behaviour. It is sickening that some Officers will not only fail to behave with propriety and respect towards victims of crime, but will go on to exploit them by turning a professional relationship into a sexual one. Of course, the vast majority of those cases involve male officers exploiting female victims of domestic abuse and sexual crime. HMIC statistics for the 2 years to March 2016 showed 436 reported allegations of abuse of authority for sexual gain against Police staff, 40% of the allegations involving victims of crime.

I can put a personal face on those statistics, having blogged previously about the cases of my clients “Kate” and “Clare” (and also here) who were the victims of Police officers from the Merseyside Police and West Mercia Constabulary respectively, who sought to use their positions as Officers investigating crimes committed against these young women, to initiate sexual relationships with them. Modern technologies such as personal mobile phones, text messages and social media, give these predatory Officers even more opportunity to harass and exploit their victims. It is unconscionable that Officers who have access to intimate knowledge about what domestic and sexual abuse victims have suffered then use their privileged position as the authority figure handling the case – their position in effect as ‘Protector’ of the victim to groom, seduce, assault and harass these women, thinking only of their own sexual gratification and not at all of the emotional and psychiatric harm they are causing to the woman who first came to the Police as the victim of a criminal or witness to criminal behaviour, and who now the Police are victimising in turn. This is a clear example of one of the worst types of ‘serial exploitation’ of vulnerable young women; almost as if the Police officers involved are collaborating with the original abuser, whose actions left this person at their mercy.

Of course, what compounds this problem – the bigger picture- is the failure of Police Forces to root out and stop these rogue Officers, and this issue is what HMIC’s most recent report is highlighting. Shockingly, despite well meaning statements such as that of the NPCC quoted above, fewer than half of those 436 allegations of sexual abuse perpetrated by Police staff, identified in 2016, were referred to the IPCC, suggesting that Forces were simply failing to appreciate the seriousness of this type of Police misconduct and might very well have a culture of toleration leading to abusers ‘hiding behind the Uniform’ effectively being allowed to ‘get away with it’.

These statistics clearly caused concern to HMIC who in earlier reports of 2014 and 2016 on the subject of abuse of position for a sexual purpose made the following very troubling conclusions –

  • Approximately 1 in 5 Forces were still failing to develop sufficient integrity and anti-corruption related intelligence gathering methods
  • More than half of Police Forces did not regularly monitor their IT systems for evidence of misuse
  • Almost 1 in 3 Forces did not have sufficiently well – resourced Counter Corruption Units (CCUs)
  • Many Forces needed to improve their ability to proactively seek out intelligence, rather than waiting to react to reports, so that they could intervene early to safeguard potential victims
  • Of equal concern to the problem of Forces not having the capacity/ capability to identify abuse of position, was a culture in some Forces of failing to recognise abuse of position for a sexual purpose as a serious form of corruption (indeed, in my opinion, failing to properly act when such crimes are discovered or suspected is surely more reprehensible even than failing to discover them in the first place). If such cases of sexual abuse were not routinely being referred to the IPCC then this spoke volumes about the lack of weight, or indeed even toleration, that some in the Policing community might be placing upon it. HMIC, in tandem with the NPCC and the College of Policing, called for changes to the IPCC’s mandatory referral criteria to include all cases of abuse of position for a sexual purpose.

Following on from these reports, the NPCC set out four main principles that they expect Forces to adopt as a strategy to deal with this problem –

  • Prevention – this covers vetting Officers, professional boundaries training, and guidance for supervisors;
  • Intelligence – this covers intelligence gathering, relationships with other agencies that support vulnerable victims, IT monitoring and audit, development of intelligence and the identification of intelligence gaps;
  • Enforcement – this covers recording cases as serious corruption, oversight of the force’s CCU, referrals to the IPCC, use of an investigative checklist, victim support and access to suitably trained specialist staff;
  • Engagement – this covers working with support agencies, internal and external communication strategies, raising awareness and learning organisational lessons from previous cases.

These are highly laudable principles – but are they now being followed in practice? That is the question which the most recent HMIC report is addressing, and the depressing conclusion is ‘not anything like enough…’

A culture of Police – if not toleration, then ‘oversight’- of this type of abuse and corruption by Officers appears to remain widespread.

26 (more than half) of the Police Forces of England and Wales have failed to fully act to develop plans to prevent this abuse. Whilst 15 Forces stated that they had come up with plans, but not actually implemented them (yet), 11 simply didn’t even respond properly to HMCI’s questions on this subject, demonstrating , in my opinion, a heinous disregard of such a serious problem.

Indeed, only 2 Forces (Derbyshire and Merseyside) were found to have all sufficient elements of a protection/ prevention plan in place and active practice.

Highlighting the seriousness of this problem HMI Mike Cunningham said –

When Police officers and staff abuse their position for a sexual purpose it has a devastating effect on the lives of victims and corrodes trust and confidence in the police.

It is of great importance that forces are prepared to seek intelligence on this type of corruption and when they find it deal with it vigorously and decisively.

The importance of public trust in the police cannot be understated, and forces need to do everything they can to ensure this trust isn’t eroded.

[quoted in Police Oracle 5/10/17]

Again, the work I do on a day to day basis brings me into regular contact with the real victims and real suffering behind the statistics and pious sentiments expressed by HMIC in their reports.

I currently represent two women who have been the victim of the same sexually predatory Police Officer, DC McMillian of Merseyside Police’s Family Crime Investigation Unit, who was subsequently dismissed from the Force for gross misconduct and convicted of Misconduct in Public Office, receiving a custodial sentence of 4 years.

My client ‘Josie’ turned to the Police for help in 2011 after being assaulted by her then partner, who strangled and hit her in the face.

Josie attended Southport Police Station in June 2011 and provided a statement to a female Police Officer. Her injuries were documented and photographed.

Several weeks later, Josie was contacted by DC Michael McMillan.  DC McMillan advised that her partner had been arrested and bailed.  It was suggested that Josie needed to respond to counter allegations made by her partner and in the circumstances, arrangements were made for her to re-attend Southport Police Station.

On attendance, my client was met by DC McMillan and taken into a side room where she was interviewed.

Several weeks later and in the early hours of the morning, Josie received a text from DC McMillan enquiring as to her general wellbeing.

Thereafter, Josie began to receive multiple texts from DC McMillan, who also became her ‘Facebook Friend’ and communicated with her further by the Messenger facility of Facebook and Whatsapp.

Over time, the communications from DC McMillan became of a sexual nature and content;  suggesting that Josie had deliberately worn provocative clothing for the meeting at the Police station; requesting photographs of her breasts.

Merseyside Police subsequently established that DC McMillan had sent over 50 text messages to Josie between September 2012 – February 2014.

Dc McMillan’s behaviour towards Josie was totally inappropriate and clearly exploitative, trying to take advantage of my client when her life was already difficult enough with ongoing issues including her violent ex- partner, her children and a court case involving her mother.

Sadly, Josie was not the only victim of crime who then became a victim of DC McMillan’s predatory behaviour.

Merseyside Police discovered the Officer’s wrongdoing in June 2014 when they were alerted by Cheshire Social Services to the case of a 17 year old girl who had gone missing, and whose phone was discovered to contain numerous messages from DC McMillan, who was apparently trying to get her to meet him for sex.

Subsequently Merseyside Police Anti- Corruption Unit (ACU) confiscated DC McMillan’s personal mobile phone and discovered a vast amount of data relating to his contact by text message and social media with many women, many of whom he had induced to send him pictures of themselves in states of undress and some of whom – just like Josie – he had specifically come into contact with in his role as Officer in Charge of their domestic violence cases.

I am also acting for another of these women, who had the misfortune to have McMillan assigned as the investigating officer in their case.

My client ‘Lisa’ approached Merseyside Police in 2012 reporting serious domestic violence at the hands of her partner, the father of her two children, including having been kicked in the stomach by him when she was pregnant.

DC McMillan was assigned to Lisa’s case and visited her repeatedly at her home address, ostensibly to take statements from her. He then began to send text messages overtly complementing Lisa on her looks and appearance. At first she felt flattered by this, at a time when otherwise her ‘life was on the floor’ and she felt a complete mess, with violent harassment from her former partner continuing.

McMillan’s text messages then became more blatant, referring to Lisa’s breasts and making sexual suggestions. He continued to visit her house, claiming that the CPS required further information before they could decide whether to charge her ex- partner. On one of these occasions he asked Lisa to kiss him, which she refused. Thereafter, he continued to pester her with requests for naked photographs or videos of herself, which again she refused, now in a state of considerable distress and confusion about the Officer’s behaviour.

Throughout all of this time, nothing was being done to prevent Lisa’s ex- partner from continuing to harass and threaten herself and her children. Lisa also discovered that DC McMillan was married and had children of her own, which made her feel even worse about being the victim of his predatory behaviour. Eventually, Lisa attempted to commit suicide, a terrible event to which McMillan had been utterly, callously indifferent as he exploited such a vulnerable woman for his own gratification.

To add insult to injury, Lisa later found out through Merseyside Police that there was no trace of all of the statements which McMillan had taken from her. He had been using the investigation as a cover for contacting her for his own ends, and at the same time was letting Lisa’s ex- partner get away with the crimes which he had committed against her. What a terrible situation when a woman tries to escape from one abuser only to find herself in the hands of another, this time wearing a friendly smile and a Police uniform.

I am currently bringing claims on behalf of both Josie and Lisa against Merseyside Police for Harassment and Misfeasance in Public Office, and I anticipate that they will both be awarded substantial damages, but both I am sure would simply rather these events had never taken place. Compensation can go some way to setting wrongs right after the event, but I call upon all of the Police Forces of England and Wales to ‘wake up’ to the very real and serious problem of predators like DC McMillan using their position of trust as Police Officers to exploit and injure vulnerable women, and to act immediately upon the recommendations of HMIC and the NPCC.

DC McMillan is clearly not a ‘one off’ case, yet the historical and indeed current conduct of our Police Forces in general, as highlighted in the current report, appears to be to not to treat the preventing of these sort of offences as a high priority. The Police exist to protect us from criminal behaviour; their first duty to some of the most vulnerable members of society must be to protect them from the criminals in their own ranks.

Author: iaingould

Actions against the police solicitor (lawyer) and blogger.