Police forces in the UK are under intense scrutiny over the handling of sexual misconduct complaints and the vetting of officers, following the sentencing of the Metropolitan Police’s Wayne Couzens for the murder of Sarah Everard. New figures obtained by VICE World News and The Detail show that in one UK force, the majority of officers accused of domestic violence such as sexual abuse or physical assault faced no professional discipline whatsoever.
The figures, for the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), show that for those who do face disciplinary action, punishment is often light and job loss is rare.
In addition, the PSNI did not provide figures on how many, if any, officers faced criminal charges as a result of domestic abuse complaints being upheld.
The situation has been described as “shocking'' by a women’s rights campaigner and “deeply disappointing” by the leader of a political party.
A joint investigation by VICE World News and The Detail has uncovered figures covering a six year period. This is the first time these figures have been reported. They raise concerns about how such complaints are being handled by the police force.
The PSNI defended its “robust” internal misconduct and criminal investigations that any police officers accused of domestic abuse undergo, and said that there are ongoing reviews of internal disciplinary processes.
During the six years between April 2015 and March 2021 there were 66 complaints of domestic abuse – including assault, sexual abuse and emotional abuse – made against PSNI officers. Six of these cases are still being dealt with. In almost two-thirds (38) of the concluded cases, “no further action” was taken against the officers who were the subjects of these complaints.
A third of the concluded minority of cases (22) resulted in disciplinary action being taken. In 17 of these cases, the disciplinary action was a “management action/discussion” or “advice/guidance” being given. When asked, the PSNI did not provide clarity on what these forms of disciplinary outcomes entailed, but stated: “These are measures that are imposed and issued internally.”
One officer had their pay reduced, one resigned, another received a final written warning and two were dismissed with a notice.
The range of complaints covered allegations of physical, sexual, emotional and verbal forms of alleged abuse. “Assault during domestic incident” accounted for the most often reported claims of domestic abuse against officers (56 percent) during the six-year-period we analysed.
Of the 66 incidents in which PSNI officers had domestic abuse complaints made against them, 80 percent were against officers of Police Constable rank. The remaining complaints were made against officers in the more senior ranks of Sergeant (7), Inspector (5) and Superintendent (1).
Clare Bailey, leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland and a campaigner on issues of sexual and domestic abuse, called the PSNI’s attempts to deal with the complaints of domestic abuse against serving officers “deeply disappointing”.
She believes that the true figure of domestic abuse incidents carried out by PSNI officers in this six-year-period is likely to be higher than those recorded.
“Domestic abuse is under-reported and we know police statistics do not reflect the scale of domestic abuse in Northern Ireland.
“To know your abuser is a member of the very body tasked with enforcing and upholding the law, can only serve to make it more traumatic to report.”
Domestic violence and abuse in Northern Ireland is at a 15-year high generally, with more than 32,000 domestic violence incidents recorded by the PSNI from June 2019 to July 2020. The Covid-19 lockdown led to a rise in calls to women’s refuges across the UK.
Bailey said it’s her hope that new domestic violence legislation for Northern Ireland, which is due to come into effect next year, “will serve as a catalyst for the changes needed across all of society, this of course includes the PSNI”.
The South Belfast politician added: “Victims need to have trust in the judicial system. Currently they do not. These statistics are a clear indicator of how deep-rooted the problems are.”
When VICE World News asked how many officers were charged or convicted of any crimes in connection to these domestic abuse reports, PSNI said that this data could only be accessed through a separate FOI request, but that “the information may not be able to be retrieved within the stipulated timeframe. Convictions are a matter for the courts” – essentially saying that they would not divulge this information.
Elaine Crory from the Women's Resource and Development Agency called the revelations “pretty shocking”.
“The biggest issue is the lack of transparency. These numbers are bad, but what is worse is that the PSNI won’t tell you what has happened with a lot of these cases.
“Should they not be out there, addressing the public off their own bat, and saying ‘this has happened within our force, these are the numbers, here is what we're going to do’?”
VICE World News asked the PSNI how such claims of domestic abuse against its officers are investigated, to ascertain if the service conducts criminal investigations or carries out other forms of investigation.
A spokesperson said that, “Police officers who are the perpetrators of domestic abuse will be investigated robustly both criminally and under police misconduct regulations” and that it has “dedicated, specially-trained officers investigating domestic abuse who are experienced, impartial and professional in their approach”.
The spokesperson also said that domestic abuse is “unacceptable in any circumstances” adding that “Police perpetrated domestic abuse is a key priority”.
This is the first time that such figures have been reported on in Northern Ireland, but follow similar reports on police forces elsewhere in the UK. A 2019 investigation by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed the extent of alleged domestic abuse by police officers and staff across Britain, later described as an “epidemic” by a former police commander.
Survivors of police perpetrated domestic violence also complained of a failure by forces to investigate their own officers.
Currently, like almost all other UK police forces, PSNI handles complaints of domestic abuse internally with no other agency involved. In 2019, following the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s report, MPs, a police and crime commissioner, women’s rights campaigners and lawyers in Britain made the case that a police service which is asked to investigate one of its own employees – for domestic abuse – should instead transfer the case to a different force.
Louise Haigh, the then-shadow policing minister and now shadow Northern Ireland Secretary of State, said at the time that all allegations of police misconduct should be investigated completely independently of the police.
Crory agrees. “At the very least it should be a different force because how else are you going to get that relatively clear-eyed view, where they come in with no preconceived notions of either party,” she says.
“That’s something that makes so much obvious sense, if what you're trying to do is ensure a process that is as fair – for want of a better word – but intuitively it does not feel fair to have people investigating their own colleagues, friends, in many cases.”
The PSNI said they are “committed to continuously reviewing and improving on their approach to investigations”.
“There have been ongoing reviews of internal disciplinary processes to ensure that regardless of the outcome of criminal convictions, officers who are accused of perpetrating domestic abuse will still be considered under misconduct regulations for a number of potential sanctions, including the potential for dismissal.
“New ‘Domestic Abuse In The Workplace’ service guidance is underway which will detail help and support available for potential victims within the Police Service and have strict guidance on how to respond to domestic abuse in the workplace.”