Despite having been a police officer and also married to one, Helen (not her real name) says she now “wouldn’t ring the police for anything”.
When Helen separated from her husband, he subjected her to emotional and financial abuse and harassment.
After reporting his behaviour, she was left with little option but to leave the force she had served for more than a decade. He was later arrested for harassment, but is understood to still be working as a police officer.
After a week that saw the conviction of elite Metropolitan police officer David Carrick, who abused his power to commit 48 rapes over two decades, Helen is one of a number of women from police forces across England who have come forward to tell the Observer of the abuse they have suffered at the hands of serving officers.
While none of their abusers appear to have been disciplined at work, the women say they have suffered mentally, physically and professionally. Some have tried to take their own lives.
Leading campaigners and police figures said the conditions that enabled Carrick to become one of the worst sex offenders in modern history were “systemic” in England and Wales, suggesting the number of similar cases was likely to be in the thousands, and called for urgent action to tackle a “corrosive canteen culture”.
New figures show that more than a quarter of police forces in England and Wales referred allegations of sexual assault and harassment against their own officers to the police watchdog in the past fortnight.
The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) received 15 referrals – most of which relate to sexual assault claims – after 9 January from 12 of the 43 forces in England and Wales. The watchdog has 20 active investigations of the use of misogynistic language, sexual assault, sexual harassment and coercive behaviour.
Former policing minister Nick Herbert said forces need to concentrate on “leadership development” as seen in the RAF, navy and army and advocated building a training centre for senior officers comparable to the Defence Academy at Shrivenham.
“There has been a corrosive canteen culture, inadequate standards of professionalism, and inadequate supervision and leadership,” said Herbert, who reports to the home secretary as chair of the College of Policing. “We have to get beyond the point where senior officers are suggesting it’s a few bad apples. It is not. There is a wider cultural problem and it has to be addressed. Chief officers should have been paying more attention to it as well as police and crime commissioners.”
The former Tory MP said that misogyny and racism in policing could be challenged by creating a robust leadership culture by investing more in training, which he said “should be a continual process as it is in the military”.
The Centre for Women’s Justice has been contacted by nearly 200 alleged victims of police domestic abuse from across England and Wales since it launched a super-complaint in 2020, which the National Police Chiefs’ Council is expected to respond to soon.
Founder and director Harriet Wistrich said: “It’s likely to be a very wide-scale problem. Thousands I would have thought.”
The solicitor – whose former cases include acting for eight women who were deceived into relationships with undercover Met officers and two rape victims of taxi driver John Worboys – has received complaints from all over the country. But some, she said, were “particularly bad”. “We see it across most police forces and so it is something intrinsic to policing, it’s a systemic problem.”
She criticised “codes of loyalty” that enable offenders to “remain hidden and covered and not properly rooted out”. Police failures to take action would make people think twice about reporting abuse, she said.
The women interviewed by the Observer, all speaking under pseudonyms, said reporting abuse by officers had far-reaching consequences. Holly tried to take her own life and was left with no choice but to retire from her job of 26 years after she was raped by her then husband, who was also a police officer.
She told several people at the time of the incident, but it was not until he remarried and was arrested for domestic violence years later that she felt able to report it.
But when she did, she was left humiliated and on sick leave after she was forced to tell her story to several colleagues who either knew her or her ex-husband. After a nine-month investigation, the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to take it any further and because of this he didn’t suffer any professional consequences.
The Carrick case, she said, brought it all back. “I was sat with my husband saying ‘That’s me, that’s me, that’s what happened with my partner.’”
Comparing the police force to “a boy’s club,” she said: “They tell you should challenge everything in training, but as soon as you start challenging you’re the troublemaker.”
Sian was targeted as a teenager by a police officer who she ended up in an abusive relationship with after she was abused by a previous partner.
During their relationship of nearly 10 years he was coercive, but after they separated his abusive behaviour escalated, she claims, shoving her, abusing her child and stalking her.
After Sian reported him to the force, he was promoted, while she was not believed and suffered repercussions at work, where she was bullied and accused of being a “vindictive ex” by an inspector. “Not only was I gaslit by my ex, I was gaslit by my police force,” said Sian, who has attempted suicide and suffers from PTSD.
Amy has completely lost faith in the police after being subjected to emotional and physical abuse by her ex-partner, a police officer, with whom she has a child. She complained to his force but he remains in his job.
“The tactic they use is they will close ranks. They will make sure that their colleague is believed and protected over everyone else and it’s a matter of just discrediting the victim,” she said.
When she realised what was happening, she was shocked. “I had utmost faith in the police. I was married to one.” Now, she said: “I have lost faith in the police. I have lost faith in the CPS.”
“The system is set up to protect its own,” she said, adding that Carrick was “the tip of the iceberg”.