Safe in the long arms of the law?

Sexual victimisation of women police officers is still rife, as evidenced by the number of cases going through the courts. And the usual channels for redress are failing, says Patricia Wynn Davies

Question: what kind of a man takes a pride in arranging plastic penises on a woman's car and

attaching condoms

to the aerial?

What makes him hide a bag of prawns in her desk drawer to go rancid, creating a smell so bad that a "dirty squad" has to be brought in to fumigate the office?

What sort of men push a truncheon between a woman's legs when she bends down in the meal queue to retrieve something from the floor, then take a photograph and pin it up in the office? Or put up posters of women colleagues saying: "I fart in bed", "I could shag you", or "I'm available for a shag"?

Yes, male police officers, those guardians of safety and security the public is supposed to trust. These examples are from real-life experiences of women officers eventually driven to lodge complaints of sexual harassment, women too afraid to speak out for fear of compromising their jobs or gagged from doing so in return for out-of-court settlements.

Why? Aside from the traditional rationalisation - the one about the "macho" culture being part of the business of hardening up officers - this remains the big unanswered question. What we do know, and what police chiefs are having to come to terms with, is that barely a week goes by without a full-scale sex discrimination case in an industrial tribunal somewhere around the country - while the current level of out-of-court payouts from taxpayers' money could be hundreds of thousands of pounds.

It should all be of the greatest concern to a service that talks the language of equality but where women still account for only around 14 per cent of officers (108,642 men; 18,209 women, according to the latest figures). And the attitude of some forces appears to be hardening, with a greater tendency to insist that women complainants prove each and every aspect of their allegations in an industrial tribunal rather than settling or mediating complaints and concentrating on tackling the underlying causes.

To the sexual tormentor's stock-in-trade - sexual taunts, innuendo, unwanted advances and physical assaults - are added more insidious forms of harassment, such as interfering with a woman officer's paperwork, arranging for files or case papers to go missing and, as female officers begin moving up the ranks, victimising women who gain promotion.

Tina Martin, chairman of the British Association of Women Police and a former Metropolitan Police officer, who has helped a number of women pursue complaints, says: "We now have the phenomenon of PDSD - prolonged duress stress disorder - brought about by the undermining effect of low- level sexual harassment."

The problem is bad enough for the number of complaints in the Metropolitan Police area to have reached three figures since January this year, and the Police Complaints Authority has launched its first investigation into how the Lincolnshire force handled a discrimination complaint from a high- flying woman inspector at Gainsborough police station, Dena Fleming.

Of the cases currently being heard in tribunals, Inspector Fleming's is far and away the most controversial. Nottingham tribunal has already heard how her fate was sealed when one of the male officers she believed had been conspiring against her discovered a tape recorder she had placed in her locker to record colleagues. She was immediately suspended and disciplinary proceedings begun against her. She claims she was ostracised and harassed by male officers who resented her promotion after only two years' experience as a sergeant and her attempts to introduce changes.

Her husband Max, a former Lincolnshire officer, and friends Sergeant Nick Proctor and Constable Chris Wright, have lodged victimisation claims against the force over disciplinary notices that were handed to them after they gave Insp Fleming their support. Sgt Proctor has told the tribunal that in his 17 years as a police officer he had never witnessed such an orchestrated campaign of hate against a colleague.

While judgment is not expected until the autumn, the story as told by Insp Fleming, one of only 200 women inspectors from a total of 5,200, and her witnesses does not make happy reading. Internal documents before the tribunal described one senior officer as being "obsessed" with her downfall. He was also alleged to have spread rumours about Insp Fleming having an affair when there was no evidence to support them. Giving evidence in the witness box, Insp Fleming said her briefcase had been rifled, her paperwork moved and letters opened. She felt there was a conspiracy against her by officers who disliked her methods, while her superiors did nothing to support her. One of the conspirators, she told the tribunal, had offered her a sexual relationship. Senior detectives from Nottinghamshire have complained to the tribunal that an investigation into claims of evidence tampering in the Fleming case had been obstructed by officers they were probing.

Female officers in Lincolnshire, as elsewhere, have felt obliged to set up an underground network to help women officers cope with the stress of sexual victimisation. But the network was swiftly labelled the "Witches' Coven", or the "Dykes' Group" by male officers, says Jane Kitchen, a Lincolnshire Police Federation representative. Ms Kitchen, who has also put her job and promotion prospects on the line by testifying in the Fleming case, told the Nottingham tribunal how the Lincolnshire force went from having a full-time equal opportunities officer between May 1993 and March 1994 to a "consultant" available one or two days a week. "As soon as Dena sought advice she was cold-shouldered. She was left with barely an office and telephone," says Ms Kitchen.

There is another dimension: the federation, the union for officers up to and including inspectors, routinely offers financial and legal support to officers defending themselves against claims of harassment or other forms of discrimination, but applies a cost/reward analysis before deciding whether to back the complainant. Women complainants who want to get the harassment stopped and carry on with their jobs (the majority), rather than leaving the force and accepting compensation, often fail this test.

The policy has led Karen Wade - who recently won the right at the Employment Appeal Tribunal to a new industrial tribunal hearing against West Yorkshire police - to begin a sex discrimination claim against the federation for refusing to support her when she first brought her case. She claims she endured months of sexual taunts by officers - one of whom, she alleges, asked an arrested glue sniffer if he would like to have sex with her.

In London, Sarah Locker has gone to court twice after complaining of race and sex discrimination. She is claiming that the Metropolitan Police reneged on part of an out-of-court settlement in which she received pounds 35,200 and a promise of retraining as a detective. She said colleagues made life unbearable, forcing her to retire on medical grounds.

The forces protest that they have taken steps to root out troublemakers and discipline them. Supt Glyn Lewis, a national executive member of the Police Superintendents Association of England & Wales, says: "The issue is firmly on our agenda. In most police stations and divisions staff are constantly reminded about the way they should behave. I think the problem will be solved."

But Jackie Cole, the Police Federation representative for women officers in the Met, has a diary crammed with appointments with victims. She despairs of the conduct of the minority. "It it was their wives or daughters in the firing line they would go bloody bonkers."

The supposed justifications for ignoring the reactions of a female colleague to unwanted attentions and downplaying the seriousness of complaints are legion. Officers need to be knocked into shape to prepare for potential abuse from the public; "horseplay" is simply a way of relieving pressure. The adage, deeply ingrained in all the service professions, that you don't complain if you know what's good for you runs deep. And the underlying philosophy of team "loyalty", whatever the cost, is put to equally destructive use in other situations, hence the instances of harassment and bullying of men that go unresolved.

The most recent report of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Constabulary, last October, painted a grim picture of a problem not yet fully grasped. Sexism, racism, barriers to promotion and discriminatory bullying are still rife in the police, it said.

The report, like everybody else in the service with an opinion on the subject, urged "perspective" - as Jackie Cole puts it, "there are some smashing guys in the force". But it concluded: "There is a continued and unacceptable level of racist and sexist banter. While more covert and subtle than before, it is nevertheless destructive."

The police service has yet to prove it is really tackling the issue. Nobody has confidence in force grievance procedures.

As the Fleming case has proved, it takes guts for male officers to speak up for female colleagues who have lodged complaints. Once station pressure sparked by a harassment incident begins to build up, a woman may be left with no alternative but to launch what should be a last resort, an industrial claim. Once launched, however, that same pressure - of the "that wouldn't really be in your interests" kind - can lead to the collapse of crucial testimony and back-up.

Such a scenario is the precise opposite of what most women complainants want, says Ms Cole. "Most women simply want the harassment to stop, for it to be recognised and then stop, so that they can carry on with their jobs. They don't want a confrontation."

Typically, the victim is likely to be attractive and have refused "offers", and according to officers handling complaints, the trouble often comes from within the ranks of officers seeking promotion. A perpetrator might "stalk" his victim, perhaps a young probationer worried about being accepted by the boys, with a barrage of propositions, suggestive remarks, "love" notes, queries about the wearing of clean knickers. Others are serial harassers.

The party piece of one officer in charge of a control room was to go along the line of women undoing their bras while they were handling calls. When one distraught woman took to wearing a body instead, he responded by ringing her when she was dealing with prisoners to ask what colour flowers she liked. The man has been moved and a woman inspector is acting as mentor to the women he has harassed.

Last November, three Met officers were forced to resign after two of them handcuffed a female officer while the third put his hand up her pullover and touched her breasts.

Allegations of sexual harassment within the North Yorkshire force have led to two separate inquiries into out-of- court payouts coupled with no-publicity clauses.

If the police service cannot stamp out this kind of harassment, what chance is there for women to secure their fair share of the better jobs, working practices that take more account of family responsibilities and promotions. It leaves Jackie Cole feeling a mixture of anger and sadness. "The sheer stupidity of the behaviour makes me furious."

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