Culture of silence over rape, harassment and domestic violence by police officers

MPs are sounding the alarm over what they describe is a boy’s club in the police force that helps abusive officers escape unscathed after they themselves are reported for crimes they are supposed to prevent.

Ranging from rape and sexual harassment, sources close to the justice ministry confirmed that coverups within the force happen and are an issue of concern for the government.

“Coverups shouldn’t happen but of course some do it. Are we concerned? Of course. Mindsets [in the police force] need to change,” the ministry source told the Cyprus Mail.

In parliament, the loudest voices speaking out over the purported crimes are Disy MP and former police officer Rita Superman and Akel MP Giorgos Koukoumas, who have raised the matter multiple times.

So far, data shows that in the past decade, over half of the reports against police officers for domestic violence and violence against women failed to see justice.

Figures shared by the justice ministry detail there were 56 cases reported, of which the legal service decided that half of those would not be criminally prosecuted.

In 13 instances, the cases were withdrawn and seven are being examined. Only 15 have been prosecuted.

“It is so difficult to speak out against the police force,” Superman told the Cyprus Mail.

Her insights are particularly poignant after she spent decades in the police force herself, heading the anti-people trafficking unit, and witnessing and experiencing sexism herself.

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Disy MP and former police officer Rita Superman

According to Superman, the 56 cases are a drop in the ocean compared to what really goes on behind closed doors – both within the force and by those who work for it.

The fact that cases are seldom punished, or “left to gather dust” makes it more frightening to speak out, she explains. Compounded with the knowledge that police officers are unlikely to arrest their colleagues and friends, victims are afraid to file a report.

There is also the fact that the police officer will forever have access to the victim’s personal details. Should the victim move to a new address, the officer will always have the means to track them down.

Only a few weeks ago, Superman went public with a case of a female police officer that reported her senior for raping her. This case, like many others, went to the legal service where it was decided it would not go to court.

Superman cried foul, calling it yet another coverup. Though the reasons the case fell through were not shared to protect the victim, Superman said “they were not good enough.”

Ardent denials by police

The police, however, completely refute any allegations of a coverup within the force. “There is no tolerance for any crime in the police. There is no coverup,” spokesman Christos Andreou said.

“We have had cases where we arrested some of our own for drugs, or domestic violence. Anyone can open their mouth and say whatever they want. Why would we protect someone who committed a crime?”

Andreou added the police force has oversight by three bodies and allegations of colleagues covering for each other are far from reality. He underlined that if an investigation is launched, it is carried out by a senior officer and even from a different district so as to avoid any conflicts.

It is then up to the attorney general to decide.

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Akel MP Giorgos Koukoumas

Questionable process?

Koukoumas however questions the entire process from the beginning. He underlined that although perpetrators of domestic and gender-based violence can exist in all professions and social settings, police officers are key in investigating such cases.

“If a woman who is abused by her husband decides to go to police, what attitude will she be met with? Will the officer encourage her to speak out and report it? Or will she be asked questions like ‘did you do something to provoke him’?”

Ultimately, will the victim be told to “go back to your husband so you don’t destroy your home?”

More poignantly Koukamas asks, “how will the police officer react when they realise the person being reported is a colleague?”

Superman says she is inundated by calls from female police officers who reach out to her to ask for advice on how to handle sexism and sexual harassment in their workplace. It is an endless problem that reveals the attitudes within the force are stuck in the mindset of the 1960s she says.

Though there are women in senior positions in administrative roles, they are sparse in investigative departments, she stresses.

Figures by the Council of Europe’s Group of States Against Corruption (Greco) report showed 3,710 men work in the force, compared to 1,316 women. It urged targeted action to remedy this.

Gender equality is not a token phrase, Superman highlights. It is a way to tackle the police leadership which she describes effectively operates like a “boy’s club” who cover up for each other, and continue to maintain the culture of silence where people are afraid to speak out, because they feel nothing will happen and they may be stigmatised on top if.

‘Break the silence’

The justice ministry says it is trying to tackle the problem, first by trying to make sexual harassment in the police force a separate offence.

Additionally, issues raised by the (Greco) report last year are being addressed, the ministry said, including concerns of bribery in the force.

The 2022 Eurobarometer on Corruption points to 54 per cent of Cypriot respondents thinking that the giving and taking of bribes is widespread in Cyprus’ police, compared to EU’s average of 28 per cent.

“When we tell victims of domestic violence to break the silence, this shifts the burden away from the state,” said Koukoumas.

“The real way for victims to break the silence is to know the state will be by their side and know that they will have every support possible – legal, advisory, psychological, financial – when they decide to take the decision to report, and step into the fight against the person that beats them, rapes them, abuses them.”