Police ‘canteen culture’ in WhatsApp groups can lead to officers ‘abusing their position for sexual purposes’

The "canteen culture" that exists within the police in WhatsApp groups can impact the way officers conduct themselves, and in the worst cases can lead to them abusing powers for sexual purposes, a watchdog chief has warned. 

Forces have been under the spotlight since the sentencing of serving Met Police constable Wayne Couzens, who is serving a whole-life term for the kidnap, rape and murder of Sarah Everard.

Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dick, who has come under huge pressure to resign in the aftermath of the sentencing, last week announced there would be an independent review of her force’s culture. 

But Claire Bassett, deputy director general of the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), said a wider culture change in policing needs to come from within it.

She also said that officers who are in WhatsApp groups where offensive jokes or inappropriate images are shared could be leading themselves down a dangerous path. 

Ms Bassett said behaviour towards colleagues can easily spread across and be reflected in behaviour towards the public and particularly, for example, female victims or witnesses.

"What starts out as perhaps inappropriate jokes and language within a sort of canteen culture can easily spread to WhatsApp groups where perhaps there’s members of public, where there’s really inappropriate jokes and offensive images," she said.

"That in turn can be reflected in the way people are dealt with, and the most serious cases we see where those relationships and that trust that women, for example female victims, vulnerable victims, may place in the police, is abused, and police abuse their position for sexual purposes."

The deputy director general of the police watchdog said it is difficult to have change in police forces if there is not a zero-tolerance approach to certain types of behaviour.

She told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: "What we need is colleagues who call out such behaviour and challenge it.

"We have seen instances of that. At the IOPC we have had cases where we’ve looked at which have been drawn to our attention by officers for example where they’ve seen content on social media groups that they feel is inappropriate and we really welcome that, but we need to reach a point where that is widespread and the norm, and that this sort of behaviour is called out by colleagues and we don’t just rely on individuals to do it in the circumstances they’re in."

Ms Bassett added: "I think what we’re talking about here is a change of culture, and you can’t change culture from outside.

"The change of culture needs to come within.

"But the role that we can play, and the other organisations such as the Inspectorate and the College of Policing, is to shine really bright lights on that, and to highlight the instances we see, to highlight the learning which we do regularly, to lobby for changes around how things are treated, and to draw attention to these issues, which we have been doing for some time." 

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