Real Lives: `I feel like the most hated woman in the Met'

Complaints of sexism in the police have nearly doubled since 1996. HESTER LACEY meets one woman who fought back
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When Sarah Locker joined the Metropolitan Police force at the age of 18, she was fulfilling a childhood ambition. She is now 37 and her career has been shattered; she is, she says, a "broken person". The reason: she fell foul of a culture of deeply ingrained sexism and racism, and when she spoke out against it she was hounded to the brink of nervous collapse. Sarah was invalided out of the force in 1996, but she is still fighting. Later this year, she takes the police force to the High Court in a test case where she is suing for breach of contract and negligence. Her boss was John Grieve, who is now deputy assistant commissioner and tipped to succeed Paul Condon as commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. If called into the witness box he may have some difficult questions to answer.

When Sarah first became a policewoman, she says she learned very quickly that women in the force were treated "as second-class". "It was literally `You make the tea'," she recalls. "I didn't fit in. Some women would join in with it, try to be one of the boys, but that was never me." Nevertheless, she did extremely well, gaining a number of commendations. She wanted to join the CID, and she was one of only two women accepted to join the drugs squad, working for John Grieve. And it was here that her problems began in earnest. "Most days it was the most gross abuse. You'd go in and they'd say `Did your husband f--- you last night? Are you wearing stockings? Come and sit on my cock." She found pornography in her in-tray. "I was on the phone and there was a man kneeling under my desk simulating oral sex in front of the rest of the office."

Sarah tolerated this as long as she could. But then she began to be passed over for promotion in favour of men who had less experience than her. She was given a spoof job application form that said, among other things, that Muslim women should sleep with uncircumcised men (she is of Turkish origin). Then she was moved for extra training to prepare her for joining the CID. By then she was pregnant, and the recommendation that she join the CID was withdrawn. "That was it. I launched a grievance procedure in 1991."

The strain made Sarah ill. She felt almost suicidal and her marriage was affected - her husband, who was and still is a policeman, had to endure taunts about his wife's case. "I suggested we split up while the case was going on, because the pressure on him was so great," says Sarah. She was interrogated during her pregnancy, and she received anonymous threats over the phone. Few of her colleagues would talk to her. She ended up in hospital and nearly lost her baby. The police initially offered her compensation of pounds 250. But she held out, and when the case came to the doors of the tribunal in 1993, she was awarded pounds 32,500, an apology from John Grieve on behalf of the force and reinstatement in her job. The rules on grievance procedures were altered, and the Met promised to overhaul its policies on sexism.

A victory: Sarah was overjoyed. Except that when she went back to work, things were even worse. Her life was made intolerable and she was forced to leave. "I instigated changes, I took on the old boys' network, and I feel the most hated policewoman in the Met," she says sadly. "The job I loved was taken away from me twice." This is why she is taking legal action for a second time. "Women and ethnic minorities are both used and abused in the police," she says. "There is no point in just paying lip- service to cleaning it up."

Sarah's is one of a number of high-profile cases where the police force has been found to be discriminatory against its female employees. In the annual report of the Police Complaints Authority for 1997-98, the authority's chairman warned that police policies that looked good on paper were seldom practised. The report also noted that complaints about sexual harassment by police officers have increased, to 73 last year and 74 in 1996-7, from 46 in 1995-6. These include complaints from within the force and from the public.

According to Sue Lees, professor of women's studies at the University of North London, co-author of Policing Sexual Assault, the police's internal culture has two effects. Firstly it makes life extremely difficult for women officers like Sarah Locker. Secondly, it makes it hard for the police to offer an appropriate service to victims of sexual assault. "Like other professions with all-male cultures, the police create and enhance solidarity by separating from everything that is female," she says. "They put forward an image that is tough, and unemotional, not concerned with emotion, but sympathy is crucial when dealing with sexual assault."

In the course of her research for the book, Prof Lees interviewed both policewomen and civilians. One of the worst cases she came across, she says, was a policewoman who was raped by colleagues. There had been a bet on taking her virginity after a drinking session. "She reported it, but it was she who was transferred and ostracised," she says. Another woman had been raped by her brother-in-law. "I asked if she had reported it to the police and she said `He is the police'. He was of a senior rank and involved with courses in rape counselling."

In 1982, a television documentary portrayed the police interrogation of a victim of sexual assault. The procedure was so brutal that it led to a revision of policy. But, says Prof Lees, there is still a long way to go. "The police are bringing more women into vulnerable persons units - these used to be known as domestic violence units. They are known as chaperones. But their training is very brief." She believes that the police force needs to create a new specialisation within the force of officers specially trained to deal with sexual assault. "Policing that involves sensitivity is generally not regarded as police work," she says. "What is needed is better promotion prospects for officers who do go into those areas."

As for policy towards serving female officers, says Prof Lees, a more effective internal grievance procedure is needed, plus more women in senior posts. However, she adds, the police are beginning to take cases more seriously - though on financial rather than ideological grounds. "The limit on damages has been lifted by the European court, so the police are having to pay substantial damages if the case goes against them."

A fundamental change in attitude, according to Prof Lees, will be difficult to achieve. "Some of it is inadvertent, but there is a tendency not to recognise both sexism and racism. In order to change you have to have firm policies and enforce them. This has been tried in schools - it can be done."

Alison Halford, former Assistant Chief Constable in the Merseyside Police, gives advice to women thinking of joining the police. "The shift work, gruesome traffic accidents, hopeless drunks or the harrowing abuse of a child are the job's bread and butter - the greatest challenge is how you tackle the macho culture which sees intelligent women as good only for the butt of laddish vulgarity." Ms Halford settled her own sex discrimination suit out of court in 1992, in a case that had dragged on for two years and absorbed half the Equal Opportunities Commission's legal budget. Sarah Locker intends to fight on. "I'm not going to give up, even if I'm six feet under at the end of it."

`Policing Sexual Assault', by Jeanne Gregory and Sue Lees, published by Routledge pounds 15.99.