Devon and Cornwall police allegedly protected officers accused of abusing seven women

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Exclusive: Force accused of systematic failings, with allegations including rape and beatings

Police officers accused of subjecting seven women to abuse including rapes, beatings, and psychological torment were allegedly protected by their force, with two appointed to roles protecting women from assault and harm.

The force, which stands accused of systematic failings, is Devon and Cornwall, the Guardian has learned.

One of the male officers is accused of abusing and threatening his partner, who is also a serving police officer. In this case it is alleged the male officer was promoted twice after the force received the allegations over a 14-year period, and appointed to a leadership position in the force’s effort to tackle violence against women and girls.

Nationally, police have vowed to take violence against women and girls seriously after a series of scandals, and have previously been accused of routinely protecting officers who are abusers.

One of the seven women has waived her right to anonymity. Paula Kressinger, 57, served in the Devon and Cornwall force for 30 years until 2016. She said: “It defies belief. I was completely failed by them, disrespected and insulted. I lost trust and confidence in the police as a result. It was a definite cover-up.”

It is alleged the failings in the force were so well-known that male abusers knew they would be protected from justice, with one allegedly bragging to a woman that the force had “made things go away”.

Lawyers for the seven women have written to the force saying they will sue, alleging that when abuse allegations were reported, Devon and Cornwall police failed to take potentially criminal allegations against their own officers seriously.

Among the alleged errors are failures to gather evidence; failure to take statements or sending officers to investigate; and knowing the suspect or openly showing bias.

The allegations of abuse are made against seven current and former male officers, who are understood to deny any criminal wrongdoing.

Last Monday, the Guardian and BBC News put detailed questions to Devon and Cornwall police, who declined to answer specific questions, but said it would refer the allegations to the Independent Office for Police Conduct. An IOPC spokesperson said the matters were “serious” and the police watchdog was in talks with the force about a formal referral.

In Kressinger’s case, the man she had been in a relationship with had retired as a police officer at the time of an alleged attack. He allegedly placed her in a neck hold, at the door of the home they had shared together.

A neighbour who witnessed the incident can support Kressinger’s account, she claims.

When police arrived, Kressinger claims one officer called her “pathetic” and she said police then failed to pursue her allegations properly, instead treating her as the offender.

Kressinger said: “When I was a police officer for 30 years, you go to a domestic incident, you listen to both sides and you deal with it appropriately. That is what I expected. I was completely dismissed. It was clear they knew him.”

She said she has been left with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of her treatment by her former partner, which was “exacerbated by the lack of police action”.

After years of trying, one officer took her claims seriously, she said. “I had to fight to be heard.”

Another complainant said that one alleged attacker used his position as a firearms officer to intimidate her.

Another alleged attacker was appointed to a sexual offences and domestic violence team.

In two cases, it is alleged Devon and Cornwall police’s protection of its alleged abusive officers extended to bungling claims they had attacked children.

Emma (not her real name), still a serving officer, at first could not tell anyone what she said happened to her, and colleagues tried to help her. Allegations were first reported to Devon and Cornwall police in 2004, then again in November 2017, and no action resulted.

She said: “On one occasion, he lost his temper, when I had my baby … in my arms. My other child was screaming as he rained punches on any area of my body he could get at. He cornered me in a room and repeatedly kicked me as he stood over me. I was terrified and was begging him to stop.”

More allegations of violence Emma suffered were received by the force in December 2017, as well as the name of a potential witness.

Further allegations were made to Devon and Cornwall police in 2018 including coercive and controlling behaviour, and mistreatment of the couple’s teenage child.

No action followed for criminal matters or discipline, and the alleged attacker was promoted twice after the allegations were first received by Devon and Cornwall.

In another case, a former officer is under criminal investigation by another force, after Devon and Cornwall were accused of errors investigating allegations made against him by a woman.

Jim Pearce, an assistant chief constable with the force, said the allegations needed “careful consideration and appropriate review”.

He added: “As a result of the information received, the force has made a mandatory referral to the Independent Office for Police Conduct. The IOPC has asked for further work to be progressed by the force before they can accept and assess a referral, but we remain in consultation with them in providing the required information.

“It would be both inappropriate and premature to comment further at this stage.”

A recent report from His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary into Devon and Cornwall police said of an audit the force carried out into its culture in 2021: “Without exception, every female respondent interviewed in the cultural audit reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment or discrimination in the workplace.”

Solicitor Debaleena Dasgupta, from the Centre for Women’s Justice, which is representing the seven women, said this was the first time a force was being sued for the systematic failing of women attacked by its own officers.

She said: “These shortcomings demonstrate a failing system, and are so egregious, they breach the women’s human rights. It takes immense bravery to report a police officer to their own police force. For the victims to then be so badly failed is deplorable.

“Why do D&C [Devon and Cornwall] appear to accept what their male officers tell them, over what their female officers tell them?

Dasgupta added: “As part of their claim, the women have offered to help D&C improve its practices and procedures.”

Devon and Cornwall police have been placed in special measures by the official inspectorate.

A government-ordered report into police failings that left former the Met officer Wayne Couzens free to commit a string of sexual offences, culminating in the kidnap, rape and murder of Sarah Everard, is expected to be published within weeks.