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Cops On Trial: why everyone is talking about Channel 4’s damning new documentary

Written by Amy Beecham

In the aftermath of Sarah Everard’s murder, Cops On Trial: Dispatches has revealed the shocking scale of sexual misconduct by serving police officers, and asks why isn’t more being done to investigate such crimes? 

Warning: this article contains includes details of rape and sexual abuse which some readers may find triggering.

On 30 September, PC Wayne Couzens was sentenced to life in prison for the kidnap, rape and murder of Sarah Everard. The court heard how he had used Covid-19 lockdown rules as an excuse to stop her as she walked home, flashing her his police badge before driving her to woodland, assaulting her and strangling her with his police belt.

Now, a Channel 4 Dispatches special report, Cops On Trial, which aired on 11 October, has further investigated how widespread the abuse of power and authority within the police really is.

The documentary interviewed dozens of women who shared their experiences of police misconduct when reporting sexual or domestic violence, or at the hands of serving officers. 

Following the news that two Metropolitan Police officers were charged with “misconduct” after sharing photographs taken at the scene of the murder of Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, their testimonies prove that horrific abuses of power are far from a one-off.

Dispatches revealed that in the past four years, nearly 2,000 police officers, special constables and PCSOs in the UK have been accused of some form of sexual misconduct. 

In the shocking film, victims spoke of police abuse that ranged from covert filming to “manipulation and grooming” at the hands of police officers who were assigned to their cases, many of which involved sexual abuse or domestic violence.

Indeed, a research team from the University of Bournemouth found that the most common type of sexual misconduct was the abuse of position for a sexual purpose, which often involved striking up inappropriate relationships with the victims they were supposed to be protecting.

Sasha*, from Blackpool, told Dispatches that after she reported being raped to the police, the detective constable who took her phone into custody for evidence then leaked and shared intimate, private pictures from her phone.

The officer was later found guilty of five counts of misconduct and sentenced to 10 months in prison.

Anna*, from Yorkshire, had a similar story. She claimed that the officer sent to support her after she was the victim of revenge porn watched the sexually explicit videos that had been posted in front of her, and later “took advantage of her bipolar disorder and ill mental health” to begin a sexual relationship. 

“He would message me saying that he wished he could see the videos of me again,” Anna told interviewers. “He knew I was vulnerable and easy pickings.” The officer was found to have committed gross misconduct, but resigned before he could be fired.

The alarming scale of police misconduct in the UK

In one particularly difficult interview, Annie, from Glasgow, described her violent relationship with a serving Police Scotland officer. Sharing videos and recordings from his abuse, she could be heard screaming “stop hitting me” while he threatened her with what would happen if she went to the police.

“He would say, ‘I’d love to kill you’,” Annie told the interviewer. She says she was scared to go to the police because he was an officer and because of the culture of protecting their own.

He was later convicted of three counts of assault, but avoided prison. He also resigned the week before his sentence, meaning that he kept his police pension. 

However, Freedom Of Information (FOI) figures also revealed over 370 accusations of sexual assault, nearly 100 accusations of rape, and 18 accusations of child sex offences across 39 police forces. Of the 39 who responded to the FOI, nearly two-thirds of allegations of sexual misconduct were either not upheld, deemed no case to answer, discontinued or no further action taken.

Dispatches also found that around 30% of UK police officers accused of sexual misconduct had previously been reported for some kind of misconduct, although not necessarily of a sexual nature.

The figures paint a frightening picture of just how common the behaviours exhibited by Wayne Couzens – who had been nicknamed ‘the rapist’ in a previous job for the way he made female colleagues uncomfortable – are prevailing within the UK police force.

But more than anything the documentary asks an extremely valid question: can women really trust the police?

Can women really trust the police?

The documentary speculates that there is something culturally at the heart of the police that needs to be looked at, particularly when it comes to male violence against women and girls.

However, Assistant Commissioner Louisa Rolfe told Dispatches: “A great majority of police officers are dedicated and professional, but the onus is upon us to demonstrate to victims and women that they can trust us. We absolutely must in policing get to the bottom of what might have been behind these cases, we must get better.”

The Metropolitan Police previously announced an “an urgent examination is also now under way into all current investigations of sexual and domestic abuse allegations against Metropolitan Police Service officers and staff” following Sarah Everard’s murder.

Commissioner Cressida Dick said in a statement: “I absolutely recognise the grave level of public concerns and the need to take urgent action.

“All of us in the Met realise that it will take time to rebuild that trust and we will work hard to do so. We know that the responsibility sits with us.

“My officers, staff and I are all determined to do everything we can to make sure the public can continue to trust our officers to keep them safe. I hope the announcement today of an independent person to work with us help demonstrate how seriously we take this and our commitment to making the changes needed.”

Cops On Trial: Dispatches aired on Monday 11 October and is available to watch on All 4. 

Images: Getty

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