A Few Bad Apples Or A Rotten Orchard? Tackling Misogyny in the Metropolitan Police
In October 2011, Kristina O’Connor was attacked by a group of men, who attempted to steal her phone. After she reported this to the Metropolitan Police Service, she received emails from the senior detective investigating her case telling her she was “amazingly hot” and that he was as “determined in my [sic] pursuit of criminals as I am beautiful women”. When she challenged his behaviour, he told her that coming on to victims was positively encouraged in the Met and rejecting the advances of police officers was frowned upon. The officer in question was found guilty of gross misconduct by a Police Misconduct Panel in October 2020. Despite this, he retained his job, and later went on to work for the former Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, Dame Cressida Dick.
The Police Reform Act defines gross misconduct as “a breach of the Standards of Professional Behaviour that is so serious as to justify dismissal”. Out of 118 cases of proven gross misconduct in the past three years, less than half of officers lost their jobs, with 40 officers receiving written warnings. Out of 514 proven sexual misconduct claims against police officers over the last four years, only one third resulted in dismissal. The Independent Office for Police Conduct has accordingly called for a review of the consistency of Police Misconduct Panels’ decision-making and sanctioning. The Home Office published more stringent guidance in February 2020, outlining that proven misconduct cases should amount to “at least a written warning”.
The Metropolitan Police has repeatedly denied claims of institutional sexism and “a culture of misogyny”. A WhatsApp group comprised of 19 police officers from Charing Cross Police Station included numerous texts about threatening, raping and beating women. A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police stated such beliefs represented a small number of officers and pledged to “challenge, educate and discipline [officers]”; a response starkly at odds with the IOPC’s finding that such remarks form part of an offensive Met culture “that needs to be rooted out”.
In addressing incidents of misogyny, the Metropolitan Police has in fact perpetuated a narrative that such cases are the exception and not the rule. Following the rape and murder of Sarah Everard by serving officer Wayne Couzens, Cressida Dick conceded that there is the occasional “bad ’un” within the Metropolitan Police, however stated “All of us in the Met are sickened, angered and devastated by this man’s crimes”. Assistant Commissioner Helen Ball similarly condemned the individual officers who shared photographs of murdered sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman to a WhatsApp group; “All of us in the Met and wider policing are horrified by their shameful behaviour”. Such responses reflect a belief that conduct which threatens or harms women is not an institutional problem, rather, it is the behaviour of an exceptional, aberrant few.
The numerous examples of officers exchanging misogynistic messages on WhatsApp and social media is in itself indicative of a problem much wider than the occasional “bad ‘un”. There have been 2,000 allegations of sexual misconduct, including rape, against serving police officers in the last four years. 30 per cent of the officers accused previously faced separate claims of wrongdoing. If the Met cannot publicly acknowledge endemic misogyny in the most egregious of cases, how can they deal adequately with claims of sexual misconduct against serving officers?
Part of the problem is, to quote the IOPC, a “culture of ‘toxic masculinity’, sexual harassment and misogyny” within the Met. In respect of the IOPC’s investigations into Charing Cross, evidence was found of teams “dominated by ‘macho’ officers” who used discriminatory, misogynistic and offensive language. When colleagues reported this behaviour, they were “ostracised, harassed and humiliated”. A former Metropolitan Police detective had the offer of a promotion withdrawn the day after she reported a WhatsApp group chat containing “graphic, sexual and derogatory” messages about women. No action was taken against the officers in question at the time.
The Home Secretary and Mayor of London are currently seeking a replacement for Cressida Dick, in order to restore public confidence in the Metropolitan Police Service and root out the misogyny and sexism that still exists. Whilst any steps taken to strengthen the appropriateness of disciplinary sanctions against officers found guilty of gross misconduct would be welcomed, this will not remedy the underlying, deeply problematic, cultural issues within policing as a whole. Officers should not feel emboldened to share degrading messages about women on social media platforms, nor use their professional email accounts to make sexual advances on victims of crime. And when they do so, they should not be protected by a disciplinary process which too often fails to deliver meaningful consequences. Now, more than ever, the Met needs to disband the “few bad apples” narrative and address misogyny as the structural and systemic issue that it is. If Dick’s successor does not start from this position of understanding, women will continue to be without the full protection of the police.
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