“Sexist and sick”: female ex-police officers are exposing the behaviour of male colleagues

Written by Amy Beecham

As sexual misconduct against women in UK police forces is put under the microscope, Stylist hears from two ex-officers whistleblowing on the sexism, racism and misogyny they faced.

Warning: this article contains includes details of rape and sexual abuse which some readers may find triggering.

Following the murder of Sarah Everard by police officer Wayne Couzens, a recent Channel 4 Dispatches report revealed that nearly 2,000 police officers, special constables and PCSOs had been accused of some form of sexual misconduct over the past four years.

Now, female ex-officers are coming forward to share their experiences and the shocking, inappropriate and sometimes illegal behaviour they witnessed from male colleagues, both on and off duty.

Former police constable from Hampshire Police, Rhianon Argent, 34, was sexually assaulted while on duty by an acting sergeant known among his peers for having “wandering hands”.

As part of Asking For It, the multi-award winning exhibition series by photographer and activist Jayne Jackson, Argent – previously known as PC Greenslade – shared her experience, which happened in a marked police car.

The officer in question had sent Argent crude messages and “asked for photos” for weeks leading up to the assault.

Argent reported what had happened a few days after the incident, but says that the subsequent investigation was all about supporting him and trying to destroy her testimony and character.

“I was accused of lying during a video interview. My phone was seized and then returned broken and with evidence missing. My colleagues were all asked to provide witness statements and asked whether I was a flirt.”

The matter was investigated internally by professional standards but not criminally, despite there being a criminal offence. The officer was found guilty of gross misconduct, but Argent was advised it would be a warning on his record for one year, but that he would keep his job and rank. 

The lasting impact of sexual misconduct

“The experience affected me for years, as I struggled to go to work and return to normal again,” Argent admits. “I suffered migraines and anxiety. I couldn’t bear the injustice of the investigation. I told occupational health why I was taking so much sick leave and they said, “You’d be surprised how much this happens.”

A spokesperson for the police service where Argent worked told Stylist that the case was “investigated thoroughly at the time by our Professional Standards Department and the male officer faced a misconduct hearing and received a formal written warning.”

They added: “We have robust systems in place in line with national guidance on inappropriate relationships in the workplace and abuse of position for sexual gain which is embedded within our training programmes and regularly reinforced at all levels within the organisation.

We have worked, and continue to work, extremely hard as an organisation to ensure people understand the standards of behaviour expected of them, to be ethical and inclusive of all and to give staff the confidence to challenge on the rare occasions when behaviours fall below that which is acceptable. We have well-established processes in place to deal with any incidents should they occur.”

A culture of sexism within the police

Alongside her own assault, Argent says that she regularly witnessed male officers “saying derogatory and nasty things about the women who’d been drinking” including “what they’d do to them” while on patrol.

“I regularly listened to male officers make unacceptable jokes that today would be considered to be sexist or sick.I recall a night shift when, again, an all-male shift wheeled their chairs over to my computer and asked me about my sex life over and over. I felt like I wanted the world to swallow me up.”

She says that she never challenged any of these behaviours because “it was more important to me to be accepted, liked, and be ‘one of the lads’.”

Argent was later told by a male inspector: “Some fatherly advice for you; you are an attractive female in a male-dominated profession. You need to expect some kind of male attention.”

“If officers are not challenged and dealt with robustly at the point of low-level behaviours, such as their use of language and humour, the behaviour will escalate up the scale,” she says.

“It isn’t just banter; officers should set the bar as role models to society and be people to admire for their kindness and empathy, which is just as important as their resilience and problem-solving skills. Seeing how the Met failed to deal with Wayne Couzens robustly didn’t surprise me.”

“In my opinion, the focus is nearly always on protecting the accused officer and keeping them employed.”

Nearly 2,000 police officers, special constables and PCSOs accused of some form of sexual misconduct over the past four years.

Whistleblowing on police misconduct

Chantelle Lunt, a Black Lives Matter activist, 34, from Merseyside, served in the police force from 2017-2018.

During her time as a trainee officer, she tells Stylist that she witnessed open sexism and sexual harassment towards female officers.

As a Black woman in the force, Lunt says she was met with a lot of hostility, particularly as she was “not viewed as beautiful by western standards”. “You get a lot of anger from men. There’s so much toxic masculinity and lad culture within the force.”

Lunt recalls inappropriate behaviour, including sexual comments and physical harassment, being laughed off by senior staff, with predatory officers being labelled as “sharks” to excuse their behaviour.

From officers she was warned never to be alone with, to multiple complaints made against one of her male colleagues who was visiting the addresses of women he’d pulled over on duty and harassing them, the sexism and racism Lunt experienced led her to file an official report.

After reporting multiple counts of bullying and misogynistic behaviour against her to her superiors, Lunt says she was ostracised by her colleagues for whistleblowing and “breaking the cop code”.

“They call it the blue wall of silence; it’s an unspoken rule that you don’t tell on other police officers because then you lose the people that are supposed to back you up.”

A spokesperson previously told the Liverpool Echo: “While employed by Merseyside Police, Chantelle Lunt detailed a number of concerns in a letter.”

“Those points were reviewed and investigated by the force’s Professional Standards Department and as a result officers were given learning and advice. No formal conduct or disciplinary proceedings were found to be necessary in this case.” Stylist has reached out to Merseyside Police for further comment.

Chantelle during her time as a Merseyside police officer

“It’s happening everywhere”

In another incident, Lunt and her colleagues undertook sexual harassment training, which was described to them as “the biggest reputational threat to the force”.

“In the training session, no one was really bothered. We all knew that we were just doing it to protect ourselves, to be able to say, ‘Look at this great training package we have on offer’.”

During the session, Lunt says that an older officer made a sexual comment towards a young female PCSO who was unable to find a seat in the busy room. “The sergeant was there and he just laughed along with it,” she says.

“How can you challenge something when you know officers are seeing these things and still doing nothing?”

“The police force you see on the streets is not the same that you see behind closed doors,” Lunt explains. “They always want to problematise this harassment and violence as a problem within the Met police,” says Lunt, “but it’s not specific to one force. It’s happening everywhere in policing. It’s a cultural issue.”

“They just love to roll out the “bad apple” narrative, that if we find these rotten apples and get rid of them, it’ll be OK. But it won’t.”

What are the police doing to tackle misconduct?

On 12 October, police chiefs across the UK were told by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) to review all allegations of sexual misconduct, indecent exposure and domestic abuse involving their officers over the last two years.

Martin Hewitt, chair of the NPCC, told the Guardian that forces were doing “everything that we can do to ensure that the way we deal with violence against women and girls is as effective and as assertive as it can be”.

Following Sarah Everard’s murder, the Metropolitan Police also announced an “an urgent examination is also now under way into all current investigations of sexual and domestic abuse allegations against Metropolitan Police Service officers and staff”.

Commissioner Cressida Dick previously said in a statement: “I absolutely recognise the grave level of public concerns and the need to take urgent action.

My officers, staff and I are all determined to do everything we can to make sure the public can continue to trust our officers to keep them safe. I hope the announcement today of an independent person to work with us will help demonstrate how seriously we take this and our commitment to making the changes needed.”

Victim Support is an independent charity that provides practical and emotional support to victims of all crimes, including sexual assault and harassment. For help and information you can contact the charity’s free 24/7 Support line number on 0808 16 89 111 or seek support via the website: victimsupport.org.uk.

Images: Getty/Chantelle Lunt

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