Watchdog accuses police of sexual harassment by police officers

Male police officers, including family liaison specialists, are sexually harassing female colleagues and members of the public, despite repeated warnings behaviour, a watchdog said yesterday.

The Police Complaints Authority also criticised the lenient treatment of some sexist officers who, it said, would be sacked for their behaviour in any other job but often escaped with a fine or reprimand.

The PCA's annual report highlighted the case of a family liaison officer in a murder inquiry. He was accused of harassing a female relative of the family he was helping, making a racist remark, boasting about how much overtime he was earning, and taking family and friends to the wrong murder location. At a misconduct hearing eight allegations were upheld, but the only penalty was the loss of 13 days' pay.

The PCA highlighted unacceptable behaviour by male family liaison officers and raised doubts over whether men should be used in such roles. Male officers were found to have formed "inappropriate relationships" with vulnerable women they met in the line of work, and some investigations of domestic violence complaints were "poor", with officers showing discrimination against women, the report said.

The PCA noted that it had criticised elements in the police service for sexist attitudes five years ago and that most complaints involved allegations of officers pursing women they had met during their work.

Serious misconduct against women by male officers was still "tolerated" by some disciplinary tribunals when "in other employment settings dismissal would result".

Ian Bynoe, the authority's deputy chairman, said: "In other walks of life that behaviour would be viewed as entirely unacceptable with continuation of service. We are surprised to see the continuation of service of officers against whom allegations have been proved.

"The inference must be that the forces that cause us to have those concerns are failing to gauge the seriousness of the behaviour and deal with it."

He said there needed to be consistency across different forces as to what was regarded as unacceptable.

A PCA source added: "There are people in the service whose ideas haven't changed for 20 or 30 years: they are dinosaurs and it is completely unacceptable."

Women now made 23 per cent of all complaints against the police compared with only 15 per cent in 1993, the report said, although only a small proportion related to allegations of sexist behaviour.

Continuing sexist attitudes and tolerance of the canteen culture by senior officers were described as "unacceptable" by the PCA, citing the example of a sergeant from the North Yorkshire force who was sacked after being found guilty of repeatedly making offensive and sexual comments about female colleagues.

The PCA said there was a need for disciplinary action or other measures in more than a quarter of complaints against police received in the year to April 2003 - 936 out of 3,547 investigations.

The highest number of complaints for every 1,000 officers in service was in Staffordshire (235) followed by North Yorkshire (207).