A third of police forces referred sex assault claims to watchdog

Twenty-seven allegations about officers passed on in week Couzens sentenced

Almost a third of police forces in England and Wales referred allegations of sexual assault and harassment against their own officers to the police watchdog in the days following the sentencing of Wayne Couzens for the murder of Sarah Everard, the Observer can reveal.

The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) received 27 detailed referrals involving officers and serious sexual offences in the week after Couzens was handed a whole-life term on 30 September for the kidnap, rape and murder of Everard while he was a serving officer.

The allegations involve 14 forces in England and Wales and will again raise questions over a culture of misogyny, predatory behaviour and poor professional standards in policing.

The watchdog said the number of referrals was a “significant increase” from previous weeks, although it is unclear if cases are new or were already sitting on the books of forces and only passed on following the furore over the Everard case that led to calls for police reform and more action to tackle violence against women.

The IOPC is investigating five serving officers and Couzens for allegedly distributing shared “discriminatory” messages – including misogynistic content – which were discovered during Everard’s murder investigation.

On Friday an officer from Nottinghamshire Police was dismissed following a watchdog investigation after sending sexual messages to a vulnerable woman he had stopped for a possible driving offence.

Days earlier another officer was dismissed from Dorset police after entering into an inappropriate relationship with a woman – again considered to be vulnerable – whom he had met through his duties.

Claire Bassett, deputy director general of the IOPC, which investigates 43 forces and others like the Ministry of Defence police and the Civil Nuclear Constabulary, praised all the individuals who had come forward to testify against serving police officers.

“It takes incredible strength and courage to report any sexual offence but it’s even harder when the alleged perpetrator is a police officer,” she said.

“Those who do disregard the oath they took to protect and serve can expect the criminal justice system to treat them no differently from any other criminal.”

She said that if anyone had previously reported a sexual offence or an abuse of power against an officer but felt their issue was swept under the carpet they should urgently register a complaint with the watchdog.

Meanwhile Sophie Linden, London’s deputy mayor for policing and crime, said it was vital to make it easier for officers to call out the behaviour of colleagues. “The Met have a programme of support for people who want to come forward as a whistleblower and that’s important. That work really needs to be stepped up,” she said.

Louise Casey
Louise Casey has been brought in by the Met to root out lax standards. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/the Observer

On Friday it was announced that the former Whitehall troubleshooter Louise Casey had been brought in by the Metropolitan Police to root out misogyny and lax standards as it attempts to restore a collapse in trust caused by its mishandling of the Couzens case.

Details have since emerged how the London mayor Sadiq Khan and home secretary Priti Patel crossed political divides to help cajole the force into announcing a review into professional standards and the internal culture within the force.

Last Saturday, two days after the sentencing of Couzens, City Hall sources told the Observer how Khan grilled the Met commissioner Cressida Dick about the mess the force found itself in and told her an independent review needed to happen quickly.

The following day news emerged that a Met officer from the same unit as Couzens had been arrested for rape, prompting a late-night phone call between Khan and Patel who agreed something major needed to be announced.

That led directly to Tuesday’s announcement from Patel of an inquiry into “systematic failures” that allowed Couzens to continue to be a police officer.

The source added that the appointment of Casey to lead the review into the Met’s internal culture was quickly agreed by all parties.

“We thought Casey was a great choice, someone with good credentials who could hold people to account and that was felt by all parties,” they added.Meanwhile, reports suggest that a proposal by BT for a service to help protect women travelling alone has secured the support of Patel and could be launched by Christmas.

However, within hours campaigners and figures from Labour criticised the government-backed proposal as “a sticking plaster solution” that fundamentally misunderstands the issue of violence against women.

• This article was amended on 10 October 2021. An earlier version referred to an officer being dismissed from Dover police when Dorset police was meant.


Mark Townsend

The GuardianTramp