Main Image Credit Cultural problem: concerns about sexism and misogyny within the police force have been on the rise. Image: Ian / Adobe Stock
Recent incidents have highlighted a deeply ingrained tolerance of sexism and misogyny within the UK police. What needs to change in order for this to be rooted out?
In recent years, high-profile cases of police officers’ violence against women have revealed a widespread tolerance of misogynistic attitudes within UK police organisations. Rooting these out will require more than a strengthening of traditional governance and accountability mechanisms; it will require cultural change.
The Police’s Problem with Misogyny
Since the 2021 murder of Sarah Everard by Wayne Couzens, an off-duty Metropolitan Police officer, concerns about misogyny within UK policing have only increased. In February 2023, David Carrick, another former Met officer, was convicted of 49 offences, including 24 counts of rape, sparking a further outcry over police abuse of power and victimisation of women.
The investigations into both cases identified a wider set of problems. Both men had displayed disturbing behaviours reflective of their misogynistic attitudes, yet escaped censure or punishment for years. Carrick was not suspended until 2021 despite numerous alarming signals reported to police during his 20-year career, including allegations of domestic abuse, harassment and rape.
More broadly, further cases and incidents have highlighted a level of misogyny which cannot be attributed to a few ‘rotten apples’ in the policing barrel. In November, a report by His Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) into police vetting and counter-corruption arrangements concluded that ‘a culture of misogyny, sexism and predatory behaviour’ is ‘prevalent in many forces’. In 2018, a UNISON survey found that one in five police staff across most police forces in England and Wales had received a sexually explicit email or text from a colleague. Operation Hotton, a series of independent investigations into claims of bullying and harassment against officers at a central London police station, uncovered day-to-day practices evidencing widespread sexist attitudes and alarming behaviours such as rape threats in electronic messages to colleagues. In 2022 the College of Policing, HMICFRS and the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) found that police organisations are not fully recognising and responding to the risks or fulfilling their responsibilities associated with misconduct cases, and that there are ‘systemic deficiencies’ in police responses to police-perpetrated domestic abuse.
The police and government have mainly sought to counter police misogyny by strengthening existing governance and accountability mechanisms. This is necessary though not sufficient to precipitate widespread change.
The high-profile cases that have been uncovered recently are reflective of serious governance and accountability failings at multiple levels
In response to Operation Hotton, the IOPC led a call for policy change asking police forces to publicly and internally state that there are zero-tolerance policies in place for misogyny and sexism. Earlier this year, the home secretary requested a strengthening of the statutory code of practice for police vetting and – echoing an earlier call from HMICFRS to do more to monitor officers’ behaviour for misogyny – asked all forces to repeat security checks of their officers against police databases, for cases in which previous misdeeds went undetected due to formerly less strict vetting standards.
Improvements in governance and accountability are vital, but a previous focus on formal mechanisms has had a limited impact. In the case of Carrick, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner issued a statement admitting that the force was not ‘rigorous enough’ and failed to ‘identify the warning signs over decades’. But this is not a new warning. Since 2014, HMICFRS, the National Police Chiefs' Council and the College of Policing have produced numerous reports raising concerns that police forces across the country lack the capacity and capability to track and counter problems relating to corruption and lack of integrity. In 2017 and 2019 HMICFRS found that most forces were slow to implement its recommendations to respond to the problem of abuse of position for sexual purposes.
The high-profile cases that have been uncovered recently are reflective of serious governance and accountability failings at multiple levels. Moreover, senior police leaders appear to have limited power to challenge abuses. A 2022 report published after Baroness Casey of Blackstock’s investigation into the current misconduct system of the Metropolitan Police deemed the threshold for determining gross misconduct and grounds for dismissal insufficient as it was too high to effectively deter serious breaches. This concern was echoed in a recent statement by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, who expressed frustration about current legal levers which do not allow him to dismiss over 100 police officers who are known to be untrustworthy and harmful towards the public.
Developing a Gender-Equal Police Culture
While the majority of police in the UK perform their duties to a high standard and with a high degree of integrity, there remains a deeply ingrained tolerance of, and even encouragement of, sexism and misogyny by some officers. Too many untrustworthy officers have been allowed to continue to serve for too long, and this has fostered a subculture of misogyny within UK policing.
Encouraging gender equality and fostering diversity improves morale and builds trust, both within the police and with the communities that police serve
Transforming police organisational culture into a gender-equal space, where sexism and misogyny are not tolerated, will require political and police leadership. Three complementary steps are vital. First, reformers within the police leadership need to be empowered to be able to make changes, including firing untrustworthy officers. To its credit, the government has initiated a review of dismissal procedures which needs to be followed up by active measures. Second, top-down efforts must also engender intolerance of misogyny within the ordinary ranks. Promoting and supporting reform-minded middle-managers, particularly police sergeants who have a profound influence over new recruits and junior staff, and removing those opposed to change, will be especially key to changing attitudes within the rank and file.
Third, tackling misogyny and police misuse of power will require sustained political pressure. The UK has a federated policing system with governance and accountability distributed geographically and institutionally. This can make change more difficult and pressure from above easier to resist, thus emphasising the need for a strong drive from the political centre. However, this drive must also be translated into action. The government announced in January that the Angiolini Inquiry into the Couzens case will now also investigate the extent to which misogynistic and predatory behaviour exists within police culture. HMICFRS and others have already provided substantive evidence of such behaviour. What is needed are steps to tackle it.
Tolerating misogyny within the police harms fellow officers, public trust and police effectiveness. A police force that lacks trust does not receive information from the public which it needs to tackle crime. Encouraging gender equality and fostering diversity improves morale and builds trust, both within the police and with the communities that police serve. But there is an old adage in organisational management that culture eats strategy for breakfast. Subculture presents similar challenges. While vetting, training and governance and policy strategies are important in counteracting misogyny, these responses will only be effective if they are driven by robust measures to alter the formal and informal rules which govern policing.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Dr Liam O’Shea
Senior Research Fellow
Organised Crime and Policing