Northern Ireland

PSNI criticised in sexual harassment case

The High Court in Belfast
Image caption The High Court was told the harassment of female PSNI staff had been "brushed under the carpet"

Four women who work for the PSNI made allegations of inappropriate behaviour - including unwanted touching - against the same detective, a court has heard.

One of the women claimed Det Con Ronan Sharkey slapped her on the backside in work and told her to bend over a desk to be spanked, the High Court was told.

Only one of the four women made a formal complaint and she is now seeking damages against her employer, the PSNI.

Mr Sharkey, who has never faced prosecution, denies all of the claims.

However, the judge was told he was once fined £250 during an internal PSNI disciplinary investigation, after he placed his hands on a colleague's hips.

That colleague was PSNI civilian worker Sinead Hampson, who is now suing for damages.

Her lawyer said the PSNI's response to allegations by her and her fellow colleagues amounted to a "complete dereliction of the duty and obligation of a major employer in the 21st Century".

Ms Hampson, a 37-year-old administrative assistant, claims Mr Sharkey subjected her to "unwanted sexualised physical touching" at police stations in Londonderry.

Her complaints against him also included bullying and harassment on dates between 2009 and 2012.

'Male chauvinism'

Her lawyer claimed Mr Sharkey repeatedly put his hands on her shoulders during incidents in work.

He added that Mr Sharkey, who is now a detective sergeant, is "probably old enough to be the plaintiff's father".

The lawyer further claimed the harassment of female PSNI staff was "brushed under the carpet" amid misogyny and male chauvinism within the force.

He told the judge that the PSNI had done nothing about the three other women's allegations against Mr Sharkey, after they refused to lodge official complaints.

The unofficial allegations included the spanking claim.

The court heard that another of the three women had claimed in a statement that Mr Sharkey approached her on a work night out, put his hand on her upper thigh and remarked on the tights she was wearing.

'Deplorable'

She also alleged he walked up behind her in a PSNI office and put his hands on her hips.

The court was told that the PSNI's failure to take action after receiving the complaints, which were similar in nature, was "utterly deplorable".

Ms Hampson's lawyer argued that even if those women did not want to go though the ordeal of a formal investigation, their employer had a duty to stamp out the alleged behaviour.

"What they described was entirely unacceptable, inappropriate, abusive behaviour in the workplace," he said.

"It's very hard not to be driven to the conclusion this is male chauvinism around women... it's just going to be tolerated or brushed under the carpet," he said.

The court heard that Ms Hampson's own allegations led to an internal PSNI disciplinary process.

It found Mr Sharkey had breached Ms Hampson's integrity by placing his hand on her hip.

He was cautioned and fined £250.

'Touchy-feely'

Police chiefs then separated the detective from the plaintiff, but Ms Hampson's lawyer said but that response was not enough.

"Mr Sharkey was interviewed and talks about [being] 'touchy-feely'; 'touchy-feely' has no place in the workplace whatsoever," the lawyer argued.

He said the PSNI's response to complaints about the detective "amounts to sexism or misogynism".

"Any employer has an obligation to ensure the workforce behave appropriately, within the confines of the station and anything to do with work events or socials.

"That duty is much higher when the employer is the main law enforcement agency in the country," Ms Hampson's lawyer said.

The case continues.