By Kieran McCartan, Ph.D., Kasia Uzieblo, Ph.D., and David Prescott, LICSW
Over the last couple of days there has been an accumulation of evidence in a sexual abuse case that has rocked the British police: the case of David Carrick. Mr Carrick was a serving police officer who had admitted and been convicted of a series of rapes and sexual assaults over a significant period (20 years at least) using the skills he obtained as a serving police officer to manipulate, intimate, and rape women. All of this is worrying and a cause for concern, but made even more so by the fact that Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, raises the issue that this may be the tip of the iceberg with more cases to come from other serving officers. She argues that the police need to “double down” on identifying and rooting out problematic officers. This is an important, but challenging issue; how best to tackle this?
Before we get into what the police can do to address problematic officers, it’s important to remember two things. The first is that this is not just a police issue. There are problematic and challenging individuals in all professions who use their positions to enable sexual abuse, even within our own field. For example, we have talked previously about the challenges of counsellors/therapists overstepping their boundaries and foreign aid workers in disaster zones using their position, influence, and access to commit child sexual abuse and/or exploitation. All this means that we need to recognize that people may enter these frontline positions because of the access and influence that it provides them, or that because of the job that they do and the culture or the work or organisation they start to change their attitudes and beliefs so that they are more likely to engage in problematic and abusive behaviour. Therefore, some people do a job because it enables them to abuse, whereas others started abusing because the culture of the job impacts their mindsets. It is important to state that not all frontline professionals, police or otherwise, abuse or accept a culture of abuse, but any reports or cases undermine the integrity and trust in the organisation from the public.
Secondly, the police – especially the Met police in London – are going through a process of culture change as there are deep-rooted issues in force culture and practice that needs to be rooted out. In many ways the David Carrick case is a “perfect storm” impacting the police. Therefore, a culture change project is already happening in respect to how serving police officers think about vulnerability, abuse, and engagement with communities.
What can the police do to prevent serving officers from using their position and training inappropriately to abuse people? We offer the following:
Screening: It is important the screen police officers at the start of their training and to check in with them throughout their service period. Having a clear screening and risk assessment process would help identify problematic attitudes and behaviours which would enable timely interventions to prevent abuse before it happens. It would also enable the police to see the impact of frontline service and organizational culture has on serving police officers, meaning that they can changing internal processes if needed. Of course, this should not be done thoughtlessly. It is important to first analyse which personality and/or behavioural characteristics could be problematic in this context and how best to screen them in the most reliable way and by whom.
Training: When thinking about the training that police receive, it is important to include aspects of intersectionality, vulnerability in the communities, as well as in the populations they serve, and a recognition of the degree of power and influence that their role brings. Here it is also important to dwell sufficiently on what behaviour is or can be transgressive, what consent may or may not entail within their job, what impact their policing behaviour may have on others, and how to conduct their policing with the necessary professionalism. This all seems obvious, but it is not. These issues are particularly important regarding specialist training (i.e., safeguarding, combat, surveillance, etc).
Reflection & trauma informed practice: It is important to consider and be sensitive to the role of trauma in lives of people before they join the police as well as the trauma that they experience while in the police. It is important to recognize the role of trauma in the development of problematic beliefs and attitudes amongst frontline police officers that can result in abuse, harassment, and/or victimization of vulnerable populations. By engaging in trauma informed practice it enables the police to highlight and engage with challenging attitudes and behaviours in a considered way, that reinforces the role of the police and recognises the challenge of positional power and control amongst frontline officers over the communities they work with.
Culture shift: As mentioned previously mentioned the police in England and Wales, but especially the Met police, are going through a process of re-examine their cultural attitudes towards Violence against Women and Girls; recognising that there is a problem of sexual abuse and sexual harassment amongst serving police officers.
Community engagement: The police need to re-engage with communities to improve their public image and increase their perceived trustworthiness on matters relating to sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and violence. This means that the police, individually and collectively, need to change their messaging to communities and engage with them in a way that they will respond to positively, whether this is through messaging or actions.
The challenge of “bad seeds” or problematic frontline professionals should be tackled at an organisation, community of practice level rather than simply writing them off as unique, stand out individuals. Organisation, police or otherwise, need to recognise the potential for abuse from people who start working with them or the capacity of abusive behaviours to emerge because of working with them. This is a challenge and requires systems change and a culture shift, but its essential that this happens to restore trust in the organisation as well as encourage service users to continue using them. As Phil Zimbardo has observed, there may be bad apples, but there are also bad apple barrels and bad producers of these apple barrels.