The report into South Yorkshire Police’s handling of allegations of sexual exploitation of a generation of teenage girls in Rotherham will be enlightening. It will do three things. It will show to the British public the level of disregard shown by South Yorkshire Police to female victims of sexual exploitation, it will explain that even by the pathetically low standards of the police service it was “okay” to not investigate these crimes properly or at all, and it will demonstrate how the system of police complaints has provided zero accountability and needs reform.
My team and I have been working with dozens of traumatised and vulnerable survivors of sexual exploitation since 2013. I won’t beat around the bush, these girls were mainly in their early teens, naïve and vulnerable to the ways of the world and the harm they could face, were exploited, threatened, given alcohol, drugs and were beaten into having sex with men against their will. It was happening between 1990 and 2013. This was taking place day after day in well-known parts of the town. The men who were doing it were often known to the police. When the police were told about these cases the girls were either ignored or were dissuaded from making complaints. Perpetrators could have been arrested and prosecuted if the police had been bothered to do their job. Few officers followed through investigations. Senior police failed until around 2008 to even recognise this behaviour should be challenged. It took until 2010 for a trial to reach court and by that time it was too late as a generation of girls had been trapped and seriously sexually assaulted leaving them traumatised, often with significant mental health and addiction issues.
We heard in a police complaints adjudication panel hearing that report after report was routinely not given the attention it deserved by DS Dave Walker, who headed up the CSE team, despite younger less experienced officers bringing allegations of child exploitation to his attention. My team and the IOPC have taken dozens of accounts from women who, as girls, were stopped by police in cars with older, mainly Asian, men and no action or follow up was undertaken. We have heard that police were aware of the names of perpetrators yet failed to arrest them. We have taken evidence from women who were actively dissuaded from making complaints of rape, one girl having been told on the way to a medical examination centre that she’d be spoiling an examining doctor’s Sunday if she went ahead. We have even heard of an officer paying exploited girls for sex. Last week I wrote to the National Crime Agency to ask for allegations against that particular former officer to be re-investigated and for him to be prosecuted.
The many complaints made to the IOPC have resulted in zero accountability. Only two complaints reached the stage of an adjudication hearing. One officer, PC Hampshire, admitted his failings to follow up on allegations amounted to gross misconduct but the panel allowed him to continue in his job. In the case of former DS Dave Walker, the adjudication panel (which included a Superintendent from South Yorkshire Police) decided he had not breached any police code of conduct despite there being a weight of evidence presented to the panel that he failed to take appropriate action on many cases. Words of guidance have been issued against a small number of officers. There have been no job losses.
So the process of police complaints has delivered zero accountability. How can this be? If I was seriously negligent in my work I would expect to be disciplined and face being dismissed. Why doesn’t this happen with the police? I suppose it could be argued that police officers are essential and do their job in challenging conditions. That is of course right, but they also have training and resources. They are in place to uphold law and order and to protect the public. Some have argued in the past that police officers should have immunity from being dismissed or being sued. Thankfully those days are in the past but having worked for 30 years with police complaints I still see a system which is designed to protect police officers.
The Police Reform Act 2002 which governs complaints about the police is a labyrinth even to experienced lawyers like me. There are pitfalls and dead ends. There are time limits, decisions being made on complaints by the officers in the very force which is being complained against. Informal resolution of even serious complaints is pushed on complainants, officers are allowed to retire before cases are brought to adjudication, and panels which cannot be considered independent.
The dilemma still facing government is how to design statutory duties to help protect us all when the Police Reform Act 2002 and the way it is used by forces allows seriously negligent officers to escape accountability. For me this sends a message to police officers that “it’s okay to do your job badly – you’ll keep your job”. Either the government gets serious about this issue or the vulnerable among us will never achieve protection and accountability, officers won’t lose their jobs and will continue to make bad decisions or none at all when faced with reports of criminal activity.