The police have a duty to believe rape victims – have we learned nothing?

Daily Telegraph, Tuesday 3 April 2018

Imagine coming home to find you’ve been burgled. You’re shocked, upset, and you may well feel violated. Naturally you contact the police, who are sympathetic – but say they’re keeping an open mind about whether a crime has actually been committed.

Sorry?

Of course, that’s very unlikely to happen, whether you’re reporting a burglary, a stolen car or a mugging. But it is the position now facing women (and men) who report a rape in London, following a major shift in policy by the Metropolitan Police.

In a move that will cause enormous concern among victims and organisations that support them, the force appears to have abandoned its policy of automatically believing people who report rape. Instead of a starting point of ‘I believe you’, officers will now have to approach rape victims with an ‘open mind’, according to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick.

‘You start with a completely open mind, absolutely,’ she is reported to have said. ‘It is very important to victims to feel that they are going to be believed. Our default position is we are, of course, likely to believe you but we are investigators and we have to investigate.’ She says victims can expect dignity, respect and a hearing – but no more than that. ‘We should record what they say. From that moment on we are investigators.’

Dick’s remarks are confusing, to say the least, but many people who work with rape victims will fear a return to the bad old days when women reporting rape were treated differently. Everyone knows that insurance fraud exists but people reporting a stolen car have never faced the scepticism – and outright disbelief – which all too often confronted women who said they’d been raped (and deterred others even from going to the police).

The consequence was a long-running failure, highlighted by the case of Jimmy Savile – now exposed as one of the country’s most prolific paedophiles – to investigate allegations properly and protect future victims. The fact is that the vast majority of rapes in this country are never reported to the police, and fear of not being believed remains a significant obstacle to bringing rapists to justice.

Despite causing an outcry in some quarters, the Met’s ‘I believe you’ policy – adopted in 2011 – simply placed rape complainants on the same footing as anyone else walking into a police station. It put right a long-standing injustice and had the support of senior officers.

The policy never implied that allegations wouldn’t be investigated, and dismissed if officers found reasons to doubt the complainant’s account. But it did mean that some women who wouldn’t have had the confidence to report a rape in the past now felt able to go to the police. Its success can be judged by crime statistics, which show a 19 per cent increase in rape reports to the Metropolitan Police last year.

The most likely reason for the apparent change of heart is the failure of Operation Midland, an investigation into an alleged male paedophile ring in the heart of the establishment. It was severely criticised by a retired High Court judge, Sir Richard Henriques, who singled out the ‘I believe you’ policy for particular criticism.

Yet it is clear that detectives went far beyond that initial step, appearing on television to declare their confidence in a witness known as ‘Nick’ – now discredited – at an early stage in the investigation. The Crown Prosecution Service is considering whether to charge ‘Nick’ with perverting the course of justice – but that isn’t a reason to doubt the word of individual women in very different cases.

There will always be occasions where a witness is shown to have lied, but that isn’t a reason for treating anyone who reports a crime as potentially dishonest. The idea of keeping an ‘open mind’ in cases of rape and sexual assault is especially worrying, harking back to the days when women and children were regarded as unreliable witnesses. The myth of high levels of false accusation is just that, a myth, and it certainly shouldn’t have an impact on policy.

The policy change couldn’t come at a worse moment. New ways of handling disclosure have tipped the whole system of reporting and investigating rape into crisis, with victims having to hand over massive amounts of personal data – mobile phones, tablets, work computers, medical and school records – to the police.

Some lawyers believe that the demands placed on victims are now so onerous that they breach the right to a private life under article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. There are no corresponding requirements on defendants to hand over personal material, which means that the system is already skewed against rape victims.

We are talking here about some of the most vulnerable people who will ever go to the police – and they are entitled to be believed until a thorough and unbiased investigation has shown otherwise. Rape is a terrible crime, and there can be no justification for arbitrarily withdrawing belief from victims who have already suffered dreadfully.

 

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