Vetting failings could mean ‘thousands’ of corrupt officers in police

ITV News' Geraint Vincent shines a spotlight on the damning report which has revealed unfit standards in police vetting across England and Wales

Thousands of corrupt officers may be serving in police forces across England and Wales, a watchdog warned as it condemned poor police vetting standards.

If measures to improve screening checks had been put in place earlier, the chances of someone like Sarah Everard’s murderer Wayne Couzens getting a job as a police officer would have been “clearly reduced”, inspector of constabulary Matt Parr said.

The inspection, commissioned in the wake of Ms Everard’s murder, concluded a culture of misogyny, sexism and predatory behaviour towards female staff and members of the public is still “prevalent” in many forces.

Speaking to ITV News, one woman told how she was a probationary police officer when she began a relationship with her abuser, who was a senior colleague.

He left the force after being found guilty of gross misconduct, but never faced a criminal charge.

'He used his platform and his friends to tell everyone on his team that I was a liar'

She said the relationship led to her experiencing "physical, sexual, financial and severe mental and emotional abuse".

Another woman explained that she was married to a police officer who subjected her to sexual and emotional abuse.

When she reported it to the police she claimed she was never taken seriously.

She said: "When the officers come over they gloat. They make comments that they share the canteen with your spouse or they work in the same building. It's all under one umbrella and it's very corrupt.

"It's very unfair for the survivors who try to come forward. They're never going to get a fair investigation."

'It's all under one umbrella and it's very corrupt'

The report said it uncovered too many cases where people, including those with criminal records or links to organised crime, should not have been allowed to join the police and that it was “too easy” for them to do so.

Mr Parr said this culture existed in “all the forces we inspected”, which he branded a “depressing finding”.

He added: “It is too easy for the wrong people to both join and stay in the police. If the police are to rebuild public trust and protect their own female officers and staff vetting must be much more rigorous and sexual misconduct taken more seriously.”

Although he could not estimate overall how many such officers are still serving, he told reporters: “It seems reasonable for me to say that over the last three or four years, the number of people recruited over whom we would raise significant questions is certainly in the hundreds, if not low thousands… it’s not in the tens, it’s at least in the hundreds.”

Speaking to ITV News he added that it is "clearly possible" that an allegation of rape could today be investigated by a police officer who is in fact themselves a sexual offender.

The Metropolitan Police was one of eight forces looked into. Credit: PA

The report, commissioned in October last year by former home secretary Priti Patel, said there had been “many warning signs” over the last decade that the system was not working well enough.

As well as forces linked to Couzens – the Metropolitan Police, Kent Police and the Civil Nuclear Constabulary – the inspection scrutinised practices at Cumbria, South Wales, Nottinghamshire, Dorset and Devon and Cornwall forces.

Asked if Couzens would have been able to join the Met had previous recommendations to tackle longstanding problems with vetting procedures been adopted, Mr Parr said the "shoddier" a vetting system is, the greater the chance is of somebody like Couzens joining.

Sarah Everard was killed by Couzens in March 2021. Credit: Family/PA

“Now I can’t say that he would never have joined or never been allowed to transfer," he said.

"What I can say is the tighter your standards, and if some of the recommendations we’ve made had been enacted, the chances of something like that happening are clearly reduced.”

Mr Parr accused chief constables and police leaders of failing to “appreciate the damage to their reputation and the danger to the public caused by not having a significantly more rigorous process for identifying who shouldn’t join and who shouldn’t stay.”

He added: “It’s something that I think that there has been a degree of complacency about and I think the lessons of the last few years have given ample warning of that.”

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The pressure to meet the government’s target to hire 20,000 new officers by March 2023 “cannot be allowed to act as an excuse” for poor vetting practices, Mr Parr said.

“There is no excuse for lowering your standards to the extent that we’ve seen in this report, and by doing so, all you’re doing is storing up problems for later," he added.

“The marked decline in public trust for policing is undoubtedly linked to the prevalence of some of these dreadful incidents we’ve seen in recent years, and you should have a higher standard of who gets in and who stays in if you’re going to look to reduce those kinds of incidents.”

The watchdog looked at 11,277 police officers and staff, examined 725 vetting files, considered 264 complaint and misconduct investigations as well as interviewing 42 people.

Inspectors found cases where:

  • Criminal behaviour, such as indecent exposure, was dismissed as a “one-off”

  • Applicants with links to “extensive criminality” in their families were hired by forces

  • A chief constable argued hiring an officer transferring from another area would make the force “more diverse” despite a string of allegations spanning several years which could have amounted to sexual assault if proven

  • Warnings a prospective officer may present a risk to the public were ignored

  • Incidents which should have been classed as gross misconduct were assessed as a lower-level disciplinary matter or “not treated as misconduct at all”

  • Basic blunders led to the wrong vetting decisions.

According to the report, 131 cases were identified where inspectors described the decisions made as “questionable at best”.

In 68 of these, they disagreed with the force’s decision to grant vetting clearance.

It said: “We found officers and staff with criminal records, or suspicions that they had committed crime (including some serious crime), substantial undischarged debt, or family members linked to organised crime.

“In other cases, officers and staff had given false or incomplete information to the vetting unit.

"We also found officers who, despite a history of attracting complaints or allegations of misconduct, successfully transferred between police forces. This is wholly unsatisfactory.”

Some 11,000 police officers and staff responded to a survey as part of the inspection which saw an “alarming number” of women allege “appalling behaviour by male colleagues,” Mr Parr said.

What should be done?

Among 43 recommendations made, HMICFRS said standards for assessing and investigating misconduct allegations must improve as well as the quality and consistency of vetting decision-making.

There should be minimum standards for pre-employment checks and better practices for corruption investigations.

The watchdog also called for changes to the law surrounding police complaints and disciplinary procedures.

It added that there needs to be better guidance on conduct in the workplace and definitions on what counts as misogynistic and predatory behaviour.

What has the government said?

Rishi Sunak’s official spokesman said on Wednesday that he will read the report from His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) very carefully.

The spokesman said: “The public rightly expect the highest standards from those there to keep us safe, and that every officer patrolling our streets has gone through stringent checks. That’s very much what the Prime Minister believes.

“It’s clear that culture and standards need to change, police chiefs must take action to address this and it’s welcome that they recognise that.”

Home Secretary Suella Braverman said the report shines a “stark light” on the problems and it was “unacceptable” that women “continue to experience misogynistic and sexist behaviour".

She added: “As part of its commitment to recruit 20,000 additional officers, the government has provided funding to deliver significant improvements to recruitment processes and improve infrastructure, so it is disappointing that HMICFRS have found that, even in a small number of cases, forces are taking unnecessary risks with vetting.

“I have been clear that culture and standards in the police need to change and the public’s trust in policing restored.

“Chief constables must learn these lessons and act on the findings of this report as a matter of urgency.”

National Police Chiefs’ Council chairman Martin Hewitt said: “Chief constables, supported by national bodies, will act on these recommendations and put the problems right because we cannot risk predatory or discriminatory individuals slipping through the net because of flawed processes and decision-making.

“The confidence of the public and our staff is dependent on us fixing these problems with urgency, fully and for the long term. Police chiefs are determined to do that.”