The Prime Minister has urged police chiefs to take action to change culture and standards in the service after a damning report found serious failures in vetting officers and staff.
A watchdog highlighted cases including an officer who sublet his flat to a sex worker, one whose brother was a gangland kingpin and another who bombarded a colleague with sexually explicit and racist messages but still works with vulnerable people.
Rishi Sunak’s official spokesman said on Wednesday that he will read the report from His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) very carefully.
The spokesman said: “The public rightly expect the highest standards from those there to keep us safe, and that every officer patrolling our streets has gone through stringent checks. That’s very much what the Prime Minister believes.
“It’s clear that culture and standards need to change, police chiefs must take action to address this and it’s welcome that they recognise that.”
Inspectors found that hundreds, if not thousands, of corrupt officers may be serving in England and Wales police forces, and that the chances of someone like Sarah Everard’s murderer Wayne Couzens getting a job as a police officer would have been “clearly reduced” if measures to improve screening checks had been put in place earlier.
HMICFRS looked at eight forces, reviewing hundreds of police vetting files for recent recruits, and found it was too easy for candidates including those with criminal records or links to organised crime to join the police when they should have been barred from the service.
The inspection, commissioned in October last year by then-home secretary Priti Patel in the wake of Ms Everard’s murder, concluded a culture of misogyny, sexism and predatory behaviour towards female police officers and staff and members of the public still exists and is “prevalent” in many forces.
Inspector of Constabulary Matt Parr said this culture was prevalent in “all the forces we inspected”, which he branded a “depressing finding”.
Chairman of the National Police Chiefs’ Council Martin Hewitt sidestepped a question over whether misogyny is endemic in the culture of the police on Wednesday.
Giving evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee, Mr Hewitt told MPs: “I think misogyny is endemic in society. And the police are representative of society.
“But what I would say is, it’s more important that we root that out in our organisation because of the role that we have as a service and the powers that we have.
“It’s even more important than it is in any other organisation where I think all of these issues do exist.”
As well as forces linked to Couzens – the Metropolitan Police, Kent Police and the Civil Nuclear Constabulary – the inspection scrutinised practices at Cumbria, South Wales, Nottinghamshire, Dorset and Devon and Cornwall forces.
Mr Parr said: “It is too easy for the wrong people to both join and stay in the police. If the police are to rebuild public trust and protect their own female officers and staff vetting must be much more rigorous and sexual misconduct taken more seriously.”
Although he could not estimate overall how many such officers are still serving, he told reporters: “It seems reasonable for me to say that over the last three or four years, the number of people recruited over whom we would raise significant questions is certainly in the hundreds, if not low thousands… it’s not in the tens, it’s at least in the hundreds.”
The report said there had been “many warning signs” over the last decade that the system was not working well enough.
Pressure to meet the Government’s target to hire 20,000 new officers by March 2023 should not be allowed to act as an excuse for poor vetting practices, Mr Parr said.
He added: “There is no excuse for lowering your standards to the extent that we’ve seen in this report, and by doing so, all you’re doing is storing up problems for later.
“The marked decline in public trust for policing is undoubtedly linked to the prevalence of some of these dreadful incidents we’ve seen in recent years, and you should have a higher standard of who gets in and who stays in if you’re going to look to reduce those kinds of incidents.”
The watchdog looked at 11,277 police officers and staff, examined 725 vetting files, considered 264 complaint and misconduct investigations as well as interviewing 42 people.
Inspectors found cases where:
– Criminal behaviour, such as indecent exposure, was dismissed as a “one-off”;
– Applicants with links to “extensive criminality” in their families were hired by forces;
– A chief constable argued hiring an officer transferring from another area would make the force “more diverse” despite a string of allegations spanning several years which could have amounted to sexual assault if proven;
– Warnings a prospective officer may present a risk to the public were ignored;
– Incidents which should have been classed as gross misconduct were assessed as a lower-level disciplinary matter or “not treated as misconduct at all”
– Basic blunders led to the wrong vetting decisions.
According to the report, 131 cases were identified where inspectors described the decisions made as “questionable at best”.
In 68 of these, they disagreed with the force’s decision to grant vetting clearance.
Some 11,000 police officers and staff responded to a survey as part of the inspection which saw an “alarming number” of women allege “appalling behaviour by male colleagues”, Mr Parr said.
Among 43 recommendations made, HMICFRS said standards for assessing and investigating misconduct allegations must improve as well as the quality and consistency of vetting decision-making.
There should be minimum standards for pre-employment checks and better practices for corruption investigations.
The watchdog also called for changes to the law surrounding police complaints and disciplinary procedures.
It added that there needs to be better guidance on conduct in the workplace and definitions on what counts as misogynistic and predatory behaviour.