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U.K. police hires applicants with history of crime, harassment, watchdog finds

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LONDON — An independent investigation commissioned by the British government has revealed serious culture and security lapses in police forces in England and Wales, leading to applicants with questionable backgrounds being cleared to join, and officers going unpunished for harassing women.

In one case highlighted in the 161-page report published this month, a prospective officer was granted clearance despite an overseas conviction for attempted theft and intelligence possibly linking them to drug crime and an incident of aggravated burglary.

The watchdog also identified a “culture of misogyny, sexism and predatory behaviour” within the police force.

In another case, an officer misused force resources to search for the work location of his ex-girlfriend, who was a police staff member, the report said. She reported him and alleged that he had previously stalked her. The professional standards department didn’t investigate her claim, and the officer in charge of the case chose only to issue an informal warning.

The cases were among hundreds of vetting files and complaint and misconduct investigations reviewed by His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS), a government watchdog. Among the files, investigators found applicants with criminal records or with family ties to organized crime being cleared to join police forces with insufficient scrutiny, and allegations of misconduct not being properly assessed.

The watchdog linked this to lax standards in police vetting and the mishandling of complaint allegations, adding, “it is too easy for the wrong people to both join and stay in the police.”

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The report’s findings are “mind-blowing,” according to Rick Muir, director of the Police Foundation, an independent British think tank that researches how to improve policing. Its release comes as the United Kingdom and other countries, including the United States, engage in national conversations around police misconduct and the future of policing.

British police forces have come under fire in recent years for their treatment of women both inside and outside their own ranks.

The Home Office, which oversees policing in England and Wales, ordered the watchdog inquiry in October 2021, seven months after a woman named Sarah Everard was abducted in London by a Metropolitan Police officer who then raped and murdered her. It later came out that the officer, Wayne Couzens, had been the subject of past complaints for indecent exposure, and the Independent Office for Police Conduct watchdog launched investigations to determine whether the forces he worked for failed to investigate or act on them. The findings of these investigations have not yet been made public, and a spokesperson for the group told The Washington Post via email that it is “currently unable to make any further comment due to ongoing proceedings” against Couzens.

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The HMICFRS report looked at eight police forces across England and Wales. It reviewed 725 vetting files and 236 complaint and misconduct investigations, among other documents; carried out an online survey of over 11,000 officers, staff and volunteers; and used focus groups and dozens of one-on-one interviews to reach its conclusions.

In a statement shared with The Post, British Home Secretary Suella Braverman said of the report: “It is no secret that recent high-profile incidents have shattered the public’s trust in policing,” adding that police chiefs “must learn these lessons and act on the findings of this report as a matter of urgency.”

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While many of those interviewed and surveyed said the culture of policing had improved in recent years, some officers and staff made allegations against colleagues ranging from misconduct to sexual assault. The report found that prospective officers with past convictions for offenses such as indecent exposure and domestic abuse were cleared to join police forces, and that officers with “a history of attracting complaints or allegations of misconduct” were allowed to transfer between forces.

In one example cited in the report, an officer reported inappropriate behavior and language by his supervisor, a senior officer in the force, that “appeared to amount to sexual harassment.” The investigator decided that the senior officer’s behavior fell short of misconduct, and appeared to blame the junior officer for not objecting more clearly and for failing “to nip this behaviour in the bud.” The watchdog report found that this amounted to victim-blaming, and said the case “should have been investigated” as a possible criminal offense.

Investigators reviewed hundreds of decisions made by police forces on vetting and misconduct, and agreed with the majority of them. But they disagreed in almost one in five cases, finding some clearance decisions “questionable at best.”

Part of the problem, experts say, is that forces are under pressure to recruit more officers to meet targets set by the British government’s Police Uplift Program, launched by former prime minister Boris Johnson in 2019. Under that program, the government committed to recruiting 20,000 new police officers across England and Wales by March 2023.

To meet that goal, vetting units are told to “recruit, and recruit quickly, and recruit under difficult circumstances,” says Tim Newburn, a professor of criminology and social policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science, the author of several books on policing. “That doesn’t in any way justify the failures that are drawn attention [to] in this report, but it possibly goes some way — and only some way — to explaining why such failures possibly exist.”

Braverman, the Home Secretary, said the government has given funding to individual forces as part of the Police Uplift Program to improve recruitment processes, “so it is disappointing that HMICFRS have found that, even in a small number of cases, forces are taking unnecessary risks with vetting.”

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Britain has a long history of reckoning with inappropriate behavior within law enforcement. Police misconduct, and particularly corruption, has been the subject of internal investigations and official inquiries in recent years, and has been enshrined in popular culture through television series such as “Line of Duty” and “Between the Lines.”

In the 1960s and 70s, corruption was a problem in the police force, and led to a large-scale investigation into police activity. Operation Countryman, which ran from 1978 to 1982, investigated police officers accused of taking bribes from criminals. Investigators claimed their work was stymied by police leadership; none of the suspects was convicted.

The 1990s saw a greater focus on racism in the force, particularly after the failed investigation into the 1993 murder of Stephen Lawrence, a Black teenager who was stabbed to death by a group of White boys while waiting for a bus in London. An inquiry found that the Metropolitan Police Service investigation “was marred by a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership by senior officers.” The so-called MacPherson Report led to changes in police regulations and criminal justice.

Now, a reckoning around misogyny and violence against women in the police force is underway.

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Following Everard’s murder, Michael Lockwood, the director general of the IOPC watchdog, said that it was “now or never for policing to change.”

This report makes 43 recommendations to change police culture, vetting and complaints procedures, including setting minimum standards for prospective officers’ preemployment checks and defining improper behavior at the national level.

On March 13, Londoners paid their respects to Sarah Everard, 33, whose body was discovered after her disappearance. (Video: Karla Adam, Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

The authors of the report are scathing in their indictment, and warn of the dangers of not implementing these changes. A monthly survey of British people conducted by YouGov shows that, earlier this month, 17 percent had no confidence at all in the police’s ability to deal with crime — up from 12 percent this time last year.

“Given the risks involved with recruiting officers at the scale and speed required by the uplift programme, it is essential that police leaders act now on our recommendations,” said Matt Parr, an HMICFRS inspector and lead author of the report.

“Our report highlights that they simply cannot afford to wait any longer.”

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