Traumatised women are still learning to trust the police
Daily Telegraph, 2 Nov 2015
Confidence in the criminal justice system is a fragile thing. For decades, women who’d been raped were reluctant to go to the police, fearing they would not be believed. Those who did often had dreadful stories to tell about casual sexism, shoddy investigations and failure to collect evidence. Since then, senior officers have worked hard to win the trust of victims in a campaign which seems to be working, judging by the rise in the number of victims going to the police.
Imagine, then, the anger and frustration of everyone involved when someone working for Merseyside police joked about rape on Twitter at the weekend. The exchanges (there were two of them) between football fans and Merseyside police were crass, suggesting that losing a football match is somehow comparable to rape. ‘I’d like to report an incident of rape that occurred at Goodison Park’, a fan tweeted following Everton’s 6-2 defeat of Sunderland on Sunday.
The initial response of whoever was in charge of the police Twitter account – to check that it wasn’t a serious report – was understandable. But the next sentence was jaw-dropping: ‘Sunderland certainly got caught with their pants down’. In the 21st century no one should use this kind of language about rape; it’s old-fashioned victim-blaming of the worst sort. Like jokes about male-on-male rape in prisons, it trivialises the experience of individuals who have endured humiliating and life-changing assaults.
But the PR disaster for Merseyside police wasn’t finished. When another fan came on Twitter and talked about Chelsea getting ‘raped every match’, the official police account chirped back that ‘it’s not a criminal offence to lose week in week out’. Merseyside police quickly deleted the tweets and issued an apology, insisting that their officers make ‘strenuous efforts’ to investigate sexual crimes and protect victims. But the public expression of such casual attitudes to rape on an official account suggests both that the Merseyside force has a problem and that it hasn’t done anything like enough to address it.
However much its senior officers protest that they take sexual crimes seriously, the message clearly hasn’t got through to all levels of the force. While victims can be sure of receiving a sympathetic response from rape crisis centres, it’s vital that they also feel able to talk to the police – it’s the entry point into the criminal justice system. And it’s not difficult to imagine the effect of this ‘banter’ on a woman who’s trying to summon up the courage to walk into a police station, speak to total strangers and tell them about a brutal assault.
All of this is supposed to have changed in the last four or five years, not least because of revelations about Jimmy Savile and other rapists who were protected for decades by their celebrity. Senior officers on Operation Yewtree were genuinely shocked by the extent of Savile’s predation and the ease with which he avoided investigation, prompting a sea change in their approach to victims. Another notorious case, that the of the serial rapist John Worboys, has led to significant shifts in the way the country’s biggest force, the Metropolitan Police, deals with rape allegations.
These changes are very recent, and traumatised women are still learning to trust the police. We know that most rapes go unreported, and that’s why anything that dents that emerging trust is so damaging for the entire criminal justice system. I’m not in favour of naming and shaming in this instance, because the problem goes beyond a single individual. But Merseyside police were right to announce an investigation, and they urgently need to look at how staff are trained in relation to serious sexual assaults.
Everyone who works for the police – not just frontline staff who deal directly with sex crimes – needs to understand how fragile this process is. Stopping violent rapists, who are usually serial offenders, depends on winning and maintaining the confidence of victims.