Police forces failing to deal with predatory officers, inspectors say

HMIC reveals about 35,000 officers, staff and contractors not vetted correctly

Police forces are failing to deal with predatory officers among their ranks who target vulnerable victims of crime, witnesses and suspects for sex, inspectors have said, revealing about 35,000 of the workforce have not been properly vetted.

Forces have still not put basic measures in place to prevent, detect and deal with officers abusing their position for a sexual purpose despite years of pressure to act, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) said.

Vetting, described by inspectors as the “first line of defence” against sexual predatory behaviour among officers, is not being undertaken at the required levels in many forces including West Midlands police, where 52% of staff and officers were not vetted. At the Metropolitan police, this figure was 37% and at Thames Valley police it was 42%.

HMICFRS estimates that around 35,000 officers, staff and contractors do not employ appropriate levels of vetting. The total workforce, excluding contractors, stands at about 202,000 across all 43 forces in England and Wales.

Zoë Billingham, the inspector of police and fire & rescue services for the south-east and east Midlands, said: “It is important to recognise that this sort of abuse of power is thankfully incredibly rare, and the vast majority of officers and staff are dedicated public servants who would never contemplate this inexcusable behaviour. Nonetheless, even one instance of abuse of position for a sexual purpose is one too many.

“It is an appalling betrayal of often vulnerable people, and can be devastating to those who fall prey to it. Although the numbers of people involved are small, forces must do all they can to prevent, detect and deal with this serious form of corruption.

“We have been urging the police to act on this issue for some years now. Many forces have listened and are already making changes. But I’ve been deeply disappointed to find that others have, after all this time, still not put some basic measures in place.

“Forces should reflect on the findings of this report and take action: to maintain the legitimacy of the police and, most importantly, to protect the public from predators who have no place in policing.”

High-profile cases include the convictions of Ian Naude, who joined Cheshire police force to find vulnerable victims and was found guilty of raping and sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl.

Palvinder Singh, a West Midlands PC who sent hundreds of sexual messages to vulnerable victims, was jailed for 14 months.

In the three years to March, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), received 415 referrals for abuse of position for a sexual purpose. In the year to March 2017, there were 100, increasing to 172 in the 12 months to March 2018 and dropping to 143 in the year to March last year.

The figures are much greater than those before 2016 as forces are uncovering more cases of abuse of position, however, this is in part a result of changes in legislation.

The National Crime Agency (NCA) has highlighted abuse of power for sex as one of the major corruption threats to UK law enforcement.

Billingham said there were unique challenges involved with the type of offence as victims “don’t think of themselves as victims”.

“Too often the abuser plays the role of saviour,” she said. “Many of these cases go sadly unreported.”

There have been national vetting standards in place since 2006. However, HMIC has previously found these were not fully implemented at some forces.

The inspectorate called for all forces to vet staff by December last year, but few have achieved this.

Billingham said an area of concern was police officers transferring to other forces. “We were surprised to find there’s no requirement to vet officers at point of transfer. Some police predators who get wind of the fact they’re about to be caught run and move from force to force. There’s no way of sharing intelligence between transfer.”

Billingham added that the recent pledge by Boris Johnson to recruit 20,000 police officers would apply more pressure on the vetting requirements.

Responding to the report, Phill Matthews, the Police Federation of England and Wales’ conduct and performance lead, said: “Officers join the service with the sole purpose of protecting and serving their community. This inexcusable behaviour has no place in policing.”

The inspectorate also published individual reports on the overall performance of 15 forces. Cleveland police, which have been dogged with performance issues for several years, have become the first force branded “failing” by the inspectorate after all three key performance indicators for inspections were recorded as inadequate.

Phil Gormley, the HM inspector of constabulary and inspector of fire & rescue services for the north, said: “Cleveland has had historic problems going back a number of years. The most obvious symbol of that is it has had six chief constables in six years.

“It’s had high degrees of instability at the top of the organisation. It has significantly deteriorated in the last two years.”

Richard Lewis is the current chief constable of Cleveland police and was appointed in April. He replaced Mike Veale, who resigned in January amid allegations over his behaviour.

• This article was amended on 27 September 2019 to omit some data which HMICFRS initially supplied but later retracted due to concerns about the data’s reliability.

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Jamie Grierson Home affairs correspondent

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