Police officers settle doctor-abuse claims with Avon and Somerset Police
Police officers who were abused by shamed police medical professional Dr Reginald Bunting say they have been badly let down by Avon and Somerset Constabulary.
Posted on 22 June 2021
The Force failed to investigate complaints about the GP and occupational health specialist who was found to have subjected new recruits and serving police officers to sexual assaults and humiliating treatment during medical examinations. His behaviour was joked about at work and other officers would comment openly that he was a pervert. His inappropriate behaviour appeared to be an open secret within the Constabulary, but no action was taken when complaints were made.
Former police recruits reported that during pre-recruitment medical examinations, Dr Bunting, a Force Medical Officer who served with the Force between 1972 and 2006, would carry out inappropriate and unnecessary touching of genitals and breasts. He would make officers expose their genitals and make officers jump up and down while naked, or make them walk around with books on their head while they were dressed only in their underwear.
However, when recruits complained in 1992 and 1998, one sergeant allegedly asked why ‘someone like him’ wanted to be in this kind of job and another allegedly laughed and said ‘that’s the way things are’.
The officers have spoken out now that civil claims against the Force have been settled following the publication in 2017 of the findings of Operation Hay, which investigated 110 complaints about Dr Bunting and concluded that the constabulary failed to keep its staff safe during medical examinations. The report said that had Dr Bunting been alive, there would have been enough evidence to interview him under caution as a criminal suspect. Dr Bunting died in 2013, two years before investigations into abuse allegations began.
Seventeen officers who were abused by Dr Bunting during police medical examinations between 1986 and 1998 have settled claims against Avon and Somerset Constabulary and each has been secured compensation worth between £2,500 and £14,500, including therapy costs. The Force will also offer the claimants letters of apology. The officers were represented in their civil claims by Leigh Day solicitors.
The offences occurred when officers were aged between 18 and 48. Many were only at the start of their police careers and working in the Force was the fulfilment of a childhood dream. As such, they did not feel able to complain, especially as the examinations were the final stage in the recruitment process.
One of the abuse survivors said:
“Avon and Somerset Constabulary had several opportunities to curtail Dr Bunting’s perverted activities but instead chose to brush the allegations aside, allowing him to continue.
“My experience has affected me throughout the whole of my police career and most of my adult life. The Force claims to protect the public. It is time that they protect their own staff.”
Another, a woman police constable, said:
“The impact of Dr Bunting’s abuse and the investigation has taken a significant toll upon my wellbeing and mental health. I trusted in Avon and Somerset as an employee but was let down badly by an organisation that was meant to keep me safe.
“Dr Bunting abused and played on the vulnerable and chose his victims in situations where people like myself relied upon feeling safe and secure. I was appalled that I informed Avon & Somerset Police about Dr Bunting’s behaviour and nothing was done by an organisation that clearly knew what he was doing. Time has passed and the case has now allowed me some closure. I have been supported immensely by my legal team with a very professional and compassionate approach, so thank you Leigh Day Solicitors.”
Another female officer added:
"I am pleased that the Force recognised Dr Bunting’s wrongdoing and its own missed opportunities after so many years. The legal claims have not been easy; both I and my colleagues were very disappointed that the Police Federation would not assist us to bring these cases as we were not ‘paying members’ of the Federation at the time of the assaults. I am grateful to the Leigh Day team for their support and tenacity in bringing these matters to a long-needed conclusion."
Leigh Day solicitor Catriona Rubens said:
“Our clients are invariably disappointed and angry at the Force’s handling of the complaints and its response to Operation Hay. They strongly feel that, as police officers, they are trained to prevent and detect crime, and that the Constabulary failed to do this under its own roof. They also feel that the Constabulary did not treat or support them, its employees, in the way that they would be expected to treat victims of crime.”
Leigh Day partner Alison Millar, who heads the law firm’s abuse team, said:
“Doctors like Bunting occupy a unique position in that their role authorises them to conduct intimate examinations. Unnecessary examinations can appear to be legitimised in these circumstances. Patients can often be reluctant to question the need for such examinations because of the doctor’s authority and the trusted position their occupy. There may also be the fear that the answer will be bad news.
“For these reasons, the abuse of his position by Dr Bunting was particularly egregious and serious. I am not at all surprised that many of our clients experienced psychological symptoms, anger or distress many years after the examinations. In my experience of brining cases for people abused by health professionals, such abuse can fundamentally affect people’s sense of being able to safeguard their bodily integrity from harm, leaving them feeling violated and exposed, and challenging their belief systems. Abuse by healthcare professionals often goes beyond the act of unlawful touching itself. I am glad that we have been able to conclude this case and get some acknowledgement from the Constabulary for our clients.”
Alison Millar works in the human rights department at Leigh Day, where she is the head of abuse claims