Empowering Female Officers: My reflections from the Women in Police conference 2023

Published: 06 Oct 2023

On the 29th of September, I was really pleased to be in front of an audience of women at the Women in Police Conference. Having worked at the IOPC (and previously the IPCC) for nearly 15 years, I’ve held number of different roles in the organisation. So although I am not a police officer, I have been around policing and working with communities and stakeholders involved in policing for some time. And from that work, I know how important it is for everyone – all communities - to have trust and confidence in policing. 

Our work to build trust and confidence in policing

At the IOPC we rightly talk a lot about public confidence, but there is now a growing and very welcome focus on police officer confidence, particularly those who have or remain underrepresented in the service. 

I also say that this is a welcome focus because it is vital that all those who work in policing have trust and have confidence in the police as their employer. They must be empowered to uphold the high standards that the public expect. To do that they must feel supported, especially when they are raising concerns and areas where standards need to improve. In that context, I was very pleased to be at the conference talking about empowering female officers and driving cultural change.

At the conference the audience heard me use two words rather regularly – ‘trust’ and ‘confidence’. Our mission is to improve policing by independent oversight of police complaints, holding the police to account and ensuring that learning leads to change.  Our vision then, is for everyone to be able to have trust and confidence in policing. So, these two words are intrinsic to everything we do. 

The conference’s organiser’s request to share reflections and learning from some of our cases was a welcome task. Presenting an accurate picture is always important and I am always mindful of the fact that at the IOPC, we see a skewed picture of policing - we see it when things have gone wrong, when there has been a complaint or a serious incident.  So, my reflections were not intended to be a rounded picture of policing, but rather about what we can learn when things go wrong and how we can use that to improve. 

Lessons learned from Operation Hotton

I spoke about the now widely covered Operation Hotton investigations, which found evidence of wide-scale misogyny, discrimination, harassment and bullying involving officers predominantly based at Charing Cross Police Station. 

Many of the officers we spoke to described the culture as toxic and an environment which thrived on accepted and expected poor behaviour, including from those in supervisory roles. I was struck by how powerless some of those officers felt – they wanted to protect the standards of behaviour they believed in, but told us they felt unable to speak out and feared the consequences of doing so.

The learning recommendations we made were aimed at recognising the importance of supervision, leadership which sets the right tone and creates an environment where poor behaviour is not only challenged, but those who do so are supported and celebrated. Those recommendations were accepted and ultimately the MPS took the decision to disband that team. 

Lessons learned from the Casey Review

Many of those issues are also present in the Casey review which looked much more widely than our investigation. Her findings for everyone involved in policing were hard hitting and at times a very difficult read. But it is worth taking a moment to remember some of the themes in her recommendations – many of which chime with our work on Operation Hotton. 

These focused on:

  • the need to strengthen the vetting and the disciplinary system – ensuring only the right people come into policing and those who do not meet the standards are quickly removed 
  • taking action to disband specific teams and re-thinking others to address pockets of toxic subculture 
  • introducing new management and governance structures so that leadership sets the tone and drives cultural change.
  • and action to improve trust and confidence in communities and making sure the voices of Londoners are heard

Lessons learned from the Police Perpetrated Domestic Abuse Super Complaint

I then moved on to our work on Violence Against Women and Girls  - and specifically our work on domestic abuse perpetrated by police. In March 2020, the Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ), submitted a super-complaint alleging that forces were not responding appropriately to cases of domestic abuse involving police officers or police staff suspects. They also raised concerns about repercussions at work for victims who worked in policing themselves. 

We worked closely with the Centre for Women’s Justice on this super complaint, alongside HMICFRS and the College of Policing. Our investigation concluded that there are systemic deficiencies in the way police forces in England and Wales deal with domestic abuse allegations against police suspects.

We know that there is much to do to improve the response to domestic abuse but unsurprisingly, where the alleged perpetrator is a police officer, there are even greater challenges. These include:

  • additional barriers to reporting the domestic abuse – for victims both inside and outside of the policing service
  • access to systems that hold the details of vulnerable individuals
  • abuse of position to gain trust in the first place
  • exploitation of legal knowledge to evade justice and continue offending

Any allegation that someone has used their police status, knowledge and powers to deter a victim from reporting, cause harm or undermine a police investigation must be treated with the utmost seriousness. When victims work in policing themselves and/or in the same force as the perpetrator, there are a unique set of barriers to reporting.

Some of the most striking findings of that investigation were about the experience of police victims of PPDA. Firstly, we found that they were often not recognised and treated as victims, did not always receive the standards of victim care expected, nor were the specific challenges of being both and police officer and a victim properly recognised. 

Additionally, many of those we spoke to told us about fearing the consequences of reporting  – concerns about impact on their career, gossip, not being seen as ‘tough enough’ if they were seen as a victim, were things we heard a lot. 

Furthermore, for those who did report, we found that misconduct investigations were not always carried out when they should be - or conducted appropriately. And often those who reported the concerns were not told what action had been taken, if any. 

The importance of an impartial investigation was a recurring theme throughout, with calls for an external force to always lead investigations, suggesting that such a move would help protect police victims from repercussions at work, in cases where the suspect works in the same force.

A series of recommendations were made, highlighting the need for:

  • better advice for victims  - including those within policing - on how to report allegations and access support…
  • more consideration given to ensuring victim confidence in investigations by demonstrating independence of those involved 
  • changes to the complaints and conduct system so that police victims do not have fewer rights than members of the public.

Again, this was another sobering investigation. But I will say that of all the work I’ve been involved with, I think this super complaint has been one of the most impactful in terms of changing the conversation in policing. Since the report, a great deal of work has been done to improve practice and we are seeing a new focus in this area. There is much more to do, but I am encouraged by the response so far. 

What was the overall learning from each of these investigations? 

The learning from each of these investigations – and many other reviews – highlights that while I think there is a greater recognition of the value of women in policing, there is more to do to fully empower them and ensure they are supported from the top down.  

There are now over 50,000 women in the 43 police forces across England and Wales. This means there are now more female police officers pursuing criminals and serving the public than since records began – making up almost 35% of the overall workforce. Of the recruits hired since April 2020, nearly 43% (13,326) are women.

So, that leads us to the question of what we are doing to ensure that all of the female officers are equipped not only with the right training and equipment to support and protect the public, but also that they are welcomed and valued in the environment in which they work. 

This means that leadership has to ensure that their place of work is a safe one. One where if something is not right, it can be raised without fear of retribution but instead with guarantees of support and understanding. Representation is important and so I think we should be encouraged by those workforce numbers. While I looked around the room when I was talking, it was very encouraging to see many more women in policing who are committed to leading positive change. 

A good example of this is in the work of DCC Maggie Blyth in leading the NPCC taskforce on violence against women and girls, and the team of officers and staff - mainly women - who support her. Having women in leadership roles and other positions of influence is an essential part of changing the culture of policing so that it better meets the needs of its officers, as well as the public.

Through my work at the IOPC, I know that policing is one of the most difficult jobs someone can choose. But because of the work I have been involved in, I now have a much better understanding of specific challenges faced by women in policing. So, I want to say thank female police officers for the work that they do, for the strength that they show in meeting those challenges, and the sacrifices they all make to keep us safe. 


  • Discrimination
  • Violence against women and girls

Written by

Kathie Cashell, Acting Deputy Director General (Strategy and Corporate Services)
Kathie Cashell Acting Deputy Director General (Strategy and Corporate Services)