Sergeant Lee Cocking offered a drunk woman a lift home while on duty after she was thrown out of Skinny Dippers nightclub in Weston-super-Mare on Christmas Eve in 2017. On the drive home, they had sex in the driver’s seat of his unmarked police car.
Four years later, Cocking was acquitted of a criminal charge of misconduct in a public office by a jury at Gloucestershire Crown Court, regarding the incident.
Then, a fortnight ago, Cocking was hauled in front of a two-week internal Avon and Somerset Police misconduct panel to answer accusations of breaching standards of professional behaviour. But the panel’s chair decided on Friday that he was not at fault.
The married 41-year-old former sergeant, who retired from the force last month on medical grounds, claimed he was a victim of sexual assault by the woman, while the police force’s barristers alleged the sex was consensual.
The full report on the decision released today (Tuesday) acknowledges that, at first glance, Cocking’s story is difficult to believe. But the reoport then points to the absence of the woman’s testimony and her conduct earlier in the evening. It concludes that ‘on balance of probabilities’ and without an alternative version from the woman, what happened was not consensual sex – suggesting it was sexual assault.
In a statement after the decision on Friday, at the end of a hearing at the force’s headquarters in Portishead, deputy chief constable Nikki Watson said she was disappointed, but respected the ruling.
Abuser or abused?
Much of the trial revolved around whether Cocking engaged in consensual sex, as the force’s barrister tried to prove, or was the victim of a sexual assault, which was Cocking’s defence.
The force’s barrister told the panel: “Mr Cocking says ‘she literally jumped on me’ in the driver’s seat. This is an experienced police officer. One would have thought he would have no difficulty whatsoever fending her off.”
In a police interview a few weeks after the incident, Cocking had said, “I didn’t consider her to be drunk,” the panel was told. But the panel also heard the woman had fallen off a stool and “swung punches at people” before being ejected from the night spot.
Avon and Somerset detective constable Amber Redman insisted proper enquiries had been made into allegations by Cocking that the woman had sexually assaulted him. DC Redman was giving evidence on day six of the hearing when barrister Ray Tully, representing Cocking, accused her of not considering the possibility that the woman was the aggressor.
He told DC Redman, who had been the investigating officer: “Right from the outset of your investigation into these matters you had blinkers on. You had made up your mind who was your victim, who was your villain.”
The detective replied: “No. When the decision was made that we would treat Sergeant Cocking’s account as an account allegation, a crime report was raised and also he was given access to an independent sexual violence adviser.”
After the panel’s decision was reached on Friday, deputy chief constable Watson said: “We […] are disappointed that having carefully weighed up all the evidence they have ruled the allegations around dishonesty and discreditable conduct were not proven.
“Police officers and staff are expected to maintain the highest level of professional standards at all times. We have consistently believed the actions of the former officer on December 24, 2017, fell short of those standards and were not what the public would expect from their police service.
“We are unable to comment further until we have reviewed the full determination from the Legally Qualified Chair.”
Testimony from the officer
Cocking spoke of his “complete panic” as the drunken woman straddled him and demanded sex in his car while he was on duty. He told the hearing he felt “numb” and unable to repel the woman as she threatened to lodge a complaint of sexual assault if he refused to have sex.
He said it was common practice at Avon and Somerset Police for senior officers to drive home “antagonists” from difficult situations because it helped to defuse confrontations.
The former sergeant, who was acting inspector in charge of policing the town that night, said he rejected several attempts by the woman to seduce him during the journey before she “flung” herself on him in the driver’s seat.
He said the woman took her trousers partway down and asked for sex but that he pleaded with her to stop. Cocking said: “I just had complete panic. I had never been in that position before, ever. I just wanted her to go away.
“I kept repeating the same things to her – ‘I have a family, I’m not interested, I can’t do this, I will lose my job, I could lose everything.’”
The father of two, who grew up in Bristol and moved from Weston to Cheddar in 2016 where he still lives with his family, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after attending a harrowing road accident in 2015 in which a seven-year-old girl died, the hearing was told.
Cocking was on sick leave for four months and received therapy and counselling. He told the panel that working and keeping busy was a coping mechanism for the trauma. He said the fear for him was not the prospect of being investigated over the woman’s false allegations, but being “being stuck at home” while that happened if he was suspended from duty.
“I’ve been such a mess these last years, I couldn’t have coped with it,” he said.
The panel also heard that Cocking phoned the woman the day after what he alleged was a sexual assault.
He told the hearing the woman gave him her number as she left the car, asking him to call her. He said he tried phoning her twice the next day but threw the number in the bin when she did not pick up.
“I needed answers. I couldn’t cope with it going round in my head like it was,” he said. “I needed to understand. It sounds silly contacting the person who assaulted you.
“I didn’t want to be a victim. I didn’t like being a victim.”
The woman, who cannot be named for legal reasons, declined to take part in the hearing.
Sexual misconduct within Avon and Somerset
This case follows a string of incidents within the force over the last few years, which have come under renewed scrutiny after high-profile cases involving women such as Nicola Smallman, Bibaa Henry and Sarah Everard.
Avon and Somerset publishes the outcomes of its misconduct proceedings. Its data shows that in 2021 alone there were 9 dismissals or cases where officers would have been dismissed if they had not already left the force. 6 of these related to sexual misconduct.
In December 2021, an officer engaged in a sexual relationship with a woman they met on duty. In the same month another officer behaved “inappropriately towards two female victims of crime” on duty, including inappropriate physical contact with one and transgressing “professional boundaries” with the other.
In October that year, another officer “abused the trust and power held” by having sex with a vulnerable person.
The previous month, an officer wanted inappropriately towards three female colleagues, including repeatedly engaging “in sexual conduct” with one. The same month, another officer tried to “form an inappropriate relationship” through texting someone they met through their duties.
In July 2021, PC Teresa Lines used police databases to run a background check on someone they were considering going on a date with, while in a particularly high-profile incident in February of the same year, a decorated ex-detective was banned from the police service for life after sexually harassing a junior officer, who was forced to leave Avon and Somerset and experienced a decline in her mental health as a result.
In a misconduct hearing earlier this year, an Avon and Somerset police sergeant known as PS X was found to have committed gross misconduct for describing sex acts to colleagues after getting drunk in a pub.
He asked questions of a “highly sexualised nature, which were unwarranted and inappropriate” and was “describing sexual acts”. He would have been dismissed without notice if he had not already resigned, the misconduct hearing concluded.