Developing a risk assessment tool for the early identification of police officers who abuse their position for a sexual purpose

Research Institution / Organisation

Bournemouth University

In Collaboration With

Dorset Police and Bournemouth University

Principal Researcher

Fay Sweeting

Level of Research


Project Start Date

September 2018

Research Context

The aim of this project is to develop an effective risk assessment tool for the early identification of features which may indicate police staff who would potentially engage in abuse of authority for sexual gain. This is defined as behaviour in which employees abuse their position in order to pursue a sexual or improper relationship (NPCC, 2017).

There is an expectation that police staff adhere to a strict code of ethics which includes being forbidden to abuse their given powers, yet a minority of officers engage in corrupt and sexually inappropriate behaviour. Although there is much prior research on police offending involving issues of theft and fraud, there have been far fewer studies on sexual misconduct (Porter & Warrender, 2009). The majority of current police risk assessment methods are reactive but with sexual misconduct, a proactive method is required to prevent this behaviour occurring and thus avoid costly internal investigations, unnecessary victimisation and damage to public perceptions of the police (HMICFRS, 2017). As such the project will make a significant theoretical contribution, as well as impact future police practice nationally.

Recent figures show a total of 436 allegations of police sexual misconduct over a two-year period (HMIC, 2017). Research indicates many sexual offences go unreported due for example to victim reluctance, and factors such as potential disbelief, individual personality, and police culture may impact whether offences are reported (Maher, 2010; Melig, 2012; Paoline III, Myers & Worden, 2000; Wilson & Miller, 2005). The National Police Chief’s Council (NPCC) found despite high profile cases of sexual misconduct and recommendations for change in how allegations are dealt with, investigations are inconsistent nationally. The NPCC have identified the urgent need for a change in procedure including the development of a risk assessment tool which can be used in a uniform way across all police forces in England and Wales.

This is an orginal piece of work, being undertaken at the request of the police. Previous research has been conducted, but this is somewhat dated, involves mainly evaluation of overall statistics or interviews/surveys of staff, and/or is primarily based upon American samples (e.g. Melig, 2012). As already agreed, this project will be given unique access to confidential police data files so as the backgrounds and personalities of previous perpetrators can be explored in depth, in order to predict likely characteristics of those who may undertake such behaviour in future. It will also identify organisational practices and provide suggestions for improvement as required. To date no such study has been undertaken in the UK.

Research Methodology

​A previous exploratory study conducted by Bournemouth University using data from 14 police forces in England and Wales has identified key themes present in police staff who have engaged in sexual misconduct. It is envisaged this research will expand on these findings through interviews of perpetrators and colleagues to extend the thematic analysis and test the reliability of the variables already identified. The research will also consider past cases of police abuses of authority for sexual gain, and consider factor analysis in order to create a risk assessment tool to assist the police in attempting to proactively identify and prioritise individuals who may potentially engage in such behaviour in future. It will therefore identify potential indicators of risk of abuse of authority for sexual gain, consider organisational issues involved and provide a practical tool in order to assist policing activity.

This project will build upon previous research and utilise what is known about previous offenders in order to develop a standardised risk assessment tool for use by police. This tool could be used by officers investigating sexual misconduct offences to prioritise the highest risk cases or consider which individuals are in need of further investigation. It will also consider measures which can be taken in relation to recruitment and will consider possible inputs to national police training to reduce such behaviour and enhance awareness. The tool and training will be also be published in peer-reviewed empirical journals.

Interim reports and publications

​Sweeting, F., Arabaci-Hills, P., & Cole, T. (2020). Outcomes of Police Sexual Misconduct in the UK. Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice.

Date due for completion

February 2022
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