Chief Constables around the country were urged to ensure that all cases involving abuse of authority for sexual gain are referred to the police watchdog after the scale of the problem emerged in a national report.
And the West Yorkshire Police department that deals with complaints and concerns about conduct has now revealed that what might be considered innocuous behaviour will now be dealt with the Independent Police Complaints Commission.
A report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in December revealed that more than 300 police officers have been accused of using their position to sexually exploit people, including victims of crime.
HMIC said abuse of authority for sexual gain was now the “most serious” form of corruption facing police in England and Wales.
According to a report by West Yorkshire’s Professional Standards Department: “The IPCC have now directed that all such cases must be referred to them, no matter how or what form the contact takes.
“Any inappropriate contact, even a kiss on a text message sent by an officer to a victim or witness to a crime is deemed to be inappropriate and is classed as serious corruption by the IPCC, requiring an immediate referral.”
Responding to the HMIC report at the time, Policing Minister Brandon Lewis told Parliament that the vast majority of police officers and police staff, including PCSOs, conduct themselves with the highest standards of integrity.
But he said: “However, HMIC’s findings indicate that more is needed from the policing profession as a whole to demonstrate to the public, and to the perpetrators, that there is no place in policing for those who abuse their authority for sexual gain.
“Where these instances do occur it undermines justice, lets down the majority of decent, hardworking individuals serving in policing, and causes serious damage to the public’s confidence in the police.”
He promised that a national strategy led by the National Police Chiefs Council for dealing with abuse of authority for sexual gain and associated corruption would be ready by the end of March 2017.
The strategy has yet to be launched but the NPCC said this would happen in the next few weeks. Some local forces have already done work internally on raising awareness about the issue.
In West Yorkshire, there will be an online video message for staff from the Deputy Chief Constable, as well as training packages and guides for supervisors on what to look out for.
Two recent cases saw West Yorkshire officers dismissed without notice for similar conduct. One was sacked for starting a relationship with a vulnerable female who they met through the course of their duties, while another abused his position by making inappropriate contact with a female victim of crime.
According to the HMIC report in December, South Yorkshire Police carried out live monitoring of their phones to check for unusual patterns of contact.
The force scanned phone numbers dialled from force mobiles and landlines to see whether multiple contacts had been made with known vulnerable victims.
This approach enabled the force to identify a number of officers whose behaviour gave cause for concern, and subsequent enquiries led to some of them being dismissed from the force.
In April this year, the IPCC sent out guidance to police around the country that, as of May 22, “abuse of position for a sexual purpose or for the purpose of pursuing an improper emotional relationship” was among the allegations where a referral to the watchdog was mandatory.
The guidance added that the “sexual purpose” did not have to be successfully achieved for the attempt to constitute serious corruption.
Examples include “sexually inappropriate communications or unnecessary contact for the purpose of developing a sexual or improper emotional relationship”.
IPCC Chair Dame Anne Owers told The Yorkshire Post: “Police personnel who abuse their position and exploit vulnerable people for sexual gratification have no place in policing.
“For that reason, it is important that all allegations of sexual abuse or exploitation are referred to the IPCC to determine whether they require independent investigation.
“A HMIC report in December 2016 showed that this was not happening in a significant number of cases, despite our best efforts. As a result, the regulations were changed to make clear that all such cases must be referred to us.
“We have now produced guidelines to assist forces in reporting these matters. They were produced in consultation with the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the College of Policing, who have also produced their own strategy and guidance.
“Recently, we wrote to all forces to share our updated guidelines and to reinforce the importance of recognising and referring such cases.
“I am very pleased that West Yorkshire Police is taking a proactive approach and promoting this issue with its officers. I urge all forces to ensure that they follow the updated guidelines and make all officers aware of the seriousness of these matters.”