Police staff have been pressurised into having sex with their colleagues, indecently touched and sent explicit messages at work, according to a survey on the extent of sexual harassment in British forces.
Leaders vowed to root out “outdated and unacceptable behaviour” in the wake of a survey of almost 1,800 police staff in England, Wales and Scotland.
Unison said research conducted with the London School of Economics and University of Surrey found “high levels” of sexual harassment towards workers including community support officers, crime scene investigators, clerks and detention officers.
Assistant general secretary Christina McAnea said: “Sexual harassment has no place in the modern workplace.
"Perpetrators must be confronted and dealt with immediately. Otherwise their behaviour could escalate from filthy jokes to more serious forms of sexual harassment.
“No member of police staff should feel intimidated, degraded or humiliated at work. Employees who witness or experience this abhorrent and unacceptable behaviour need reassurance that they will be listened to, and believed, and that effective action will be taken to end the harassment.”
The survey found that half of police staff had heard sexualised jokes being told repeatedly at work, and more than a fifth had experienced “inappropriate staring or leering”.
Almost one in five had received a sexually explicit email or text from a colleague and 18 per cent had been touched in a way that made them feel uncomfortable.
A third of those questioned said they had faced intrusive questioning about their private lives, and 12 per cent witnessed or had been the subject of unwelcome touching, kissing or hugging.
Around one in 25 said they had been pressured into having sex, and one in 12 had been told that sexual favours could result in preferential treatment.
And one in 10 said they had been asked on a date by a colleague even if they had made it clear they were not interested.
In the vast majority of cases, the survey found that colleagues – either police officers or staff – had instigated the sexually harassing behaviour.
Researchers said the more serious the harassment, the less likely it was to be be reported, with 39 per cent of respondents saying keeping quiet was easier than complaining, and more than a third believing nothing would be done if they did.
Many believed a “gossiping culture” at work meant they did not believe the matter would be kept confidential, and a third felt they would not be taken seriously.
Professor Jennifer Brown, the co-director of the Mannheim Centre at LSE who led the research, said sexual harassment was a “serious problem” for police forces.
“When staff are already under pressure, what they need is to be able to work in an environment that respects them rather than generates yet further stress,” she added.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council’s lead for professional ethics said it had invited researchers and Unison to speak to chief constables about their findings.
Chief Constable Julian Williams, called the survey “important” and said: “It shines a light on policing and finds some outdated and unacceptable behaviour that must be rooted out.
“This behaviour falls short of the high standards set in the Code of Ethics, which each member of the policing profession is expected to uphold.”
Mr Williams said there was already good practice in some forces, who do their own staff surveys, training and campaigns on sexual harassment, but added: “We have committed to developing a comprehensive action plan by October that addresses the range of harassment found.
“Some of the behaviour described is predatory and requires the strongest response from police with individuals removed from the service.
“Other behaviours like the repeated telling of sexualised jokes may not be malicious in intent but are misguided and damaging, and our focus will be on finding effective ways of challenging them.”
Diane Abbott, shadow home secretary, said: “UK police forces need to ask themselves serious questions about the environment in which this level of harassment is able to thrive.
”More needs to be done to ensure there is a clear zero tolerance policy on harassment and bullying.
“Police staff should have a safe and supportive environment to voice concerns, with assurances that cases will be dealt with effectively.”