Crime round-up

Sunday Times, 21 July 2019

The #MeToo movement has been credited with exposing the problem of sexual harassment in the movie industry and boardrooms. But the victims in Cristina Alger’s tense new novel, Girls Like Us (Mulholland £14.99), have no one to speak for them. They are young Latina women, poor and undocumented, which makes them easy prey for wealthy older men who invite them to parties in a beach-front mansion on Long Island. When two of the girls are found murdered, no one takes much interest until the detective in charge dies in a mysterious motorbike accident.

The dead man’s estranged daughter, Nell Flynn, is an FBI agent. She has Latina heritage through her mother and feels an instinctive sympathy with the dead girls. Now, clearing out her father’s house after his funeral, she begins to suspect he killed the dead teenagers – and that he may have murdered Nell’s mother, whose body was found when she was still a child. Alger’s novel is highly political, dealing with events that have immediate contemporary relevance, but it’s also deeply-felt and fast-paced.

Jo Nesbo’s Norwegian cop, Harry Hole, has featured in almost a dozen novels, surviving extreme violence which would have seen off most fictional detectives. Unsurprisingly, Hole is a recovering alcoholic and Nesbo’s new novel, Knife (Harvill Secker £20), translated by Neil Smith, has him once again falling off the wagon. Everyone is fed up with him, including his long-suffering girlfriend Rakel, and even loyal readers may be dismayed by his behaviour in the early chapters.

If Nesbo initially seems indulgent towards his character, that impression is soon dispelled by the ordeal he has in store, plunging the hung-over detective into the most intensely personal case of his career. As always, the novel is intricately-plotted with sudden twists and startling developments. But it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that Nesbo is putting Hole through the mill to revive a flagging series, while the trite ending jars with the mood of profound despair that’s gone before.

Oliver Bottini’s Black Forest investigations, set in a German town close to the French border, rank among the most accomplished crime novels of the day. His detectives may be provincial but they exist at a cross-roads, a staging post for criminals involved in trans-national crimes such as sex trafficking and terrorism. The Dance of Death (MacLehose £18.99), translated by Jamie Bulloch, begins with a bedraggled stranger forcing his way into the home of a family in Freiburg and warning of terrible consequences if they don’t move out within seven days.

The threat poses a challenge for Inspector Louise Boni, who is in a race against time to identify the intruder. She traces the origin of the threat back to former Yugoslavia, uncovering the tragic fate of German families who emigrated to the Balkans, but the deadline is fast approaching. Bottini’s novels are infused with his knowledge of the darker corners of European history, showing its impact decades after the horrific events that drive his plots.

Kristen Lepionka’s award-winning crime novels are set in Columbus, Ohio. Her third novel, The Stories You Tell (Faber £8.99), once again features her aptly-named private eye, Roxane Weary. Her relationship with her girlfriend is disintegrating and there’s something off about her latest client, who wants her to find out who is selling copies of her company’s upmarket sportswear. A frantic call from Roxane’s brother sparks a search for a missing woman, who has disappeared after knocking on his door asking for help in the middle of the night. Lepionka’s plot revolves around dating sites and identity theft, demonstrating the extraordinary opportunities created for predators by the internet.

We don’t need another review into why rape prosecutions are at an all time low – we need to stop letting women down

Daily Telegraph, 12 September 2019

It is hard to think of a serious crime that has been reviewed so often, to so little effect. New figures show that the number of people prosecuted for rape in England and Wales has fallen to an all-time low, even though record numbers of cases are being reported to the police. Battle lines are being drawn between women’s organisations and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), which has responded to the crisis by ordering yet another review.

There were only 1,925 convictions during the financial year 2018-19, down from 2,635 in the previous 12 months – a fall of 26.9 per cent. That compares with 2,581 in 2014-15, a time when far fewer victims went to the police and the low number of convictions was already a major cause for concern.

No one can deny that the figures are terrible, but it’s hard to see how the latest review will improve the situation. It will be carried out by a little-known body called Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate (HMCPSI), and it isn’t clear how it will differ from the review of rape cases announced 18 months ago by the then Home Secretary, Sajid Javid. Or the major review of the handling of rape cases in London published four years ago by Dame Elish Angiolini. Or the review of the treatment of rape complaints in England and Wales by Baroness Vivien Stern, published in 2011.

If there’s one thing we aren’t short of in this country, it’s reviews of rape cases. But the stark fact is that despite all the time, effort and public money expended on these periodic exercises, the penalty for rape has come close to being abolished. Does anyone seriously believe that fewer than 2,000 people were victims of this horrific crime last year in two countries with a combined population of almost 60 million?

Official figures suggest otherwise. We know that 57,882 people reported a rape to the police in England and Wales last year, and we also know that’s a fraction of the real number of victims. It’s actually astonishing that so many people weren’t deterred from going to the police, given the frequency of reports about falling numbers of prosecutions and convictions. It could not be clearer that the vast majority of complainants are being led down, forced to endure lengthy, intrusive investigations with little hope of seeing their attackers convicted.

As is usually the case, the official response to the latest figures can be summed up in a single word: defensive. HMCPSI will review rape charging decisions made by the CPS, apparently in tandem with the national review announced last year, and there will be a mandatory training programme for specialist rape prosecutors.

None of this suggests a system that’s operating as it should yet the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Max Hill QC, says he has ‘every confidence in the work of our dedicated prosecutors’. We also appear to be going round in circles: there will be a project to understand rape myths and stereotypes, something Sir Keir Starmer QC identified as a problem when he was DPP in 2013.

We already know what the myths are, most obviously a mistaken public perception about the number of false rape claims, and the question is how the CPS intends to challenge them effectively. It certainly won’t do that by insisting that the police trawl through complainants’ phones and ancient school records, looking for a chance remark that might undermine their credibility.

The CPS and the police have blamed each other for the fall in prosecutions, citing cuts in police numbers and the demands made by the existence of large quantities of digital data. But dramatic falls in the number of rape charges in two successive years – there was a 37.7 per cent fall in the number of cases charged by the CPS last year – have led women’s organisation to argue that prosecutors have become markedly more risk-averse since 2016.

The CPS vigorously denies it has changed its approach but it’s about to be challenged by a group of women’s organisations. The End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW) threatened legal action against the DPP in June and says it will begin judicial review proceedings in the High Court next week. Its lawyer, Harriet Wistrich from the Centre for Women’s Justice, says she had gathered evidence suggesting that the ‘primary cause’ of the collapse in prosecutions is a ‘deliberate change’ in the approach taken by the CPS. She also claims that the CPS has tried to deter EVAW from bringing the case by suggesting the charity could become liable to pay significant legal costs if it loses.

In the meantime, the scandal of abysmally low prosecution and conviction rates continues. The CJS is doing its job so badly, failing to prosecute literally thousands of rape cases each year, that it’s effectively encouraging the ludicrous notion that women make false allegations at the drop of a hat. We desperately need a system that recognises the horrific scale of violence against women in this country – and has the guts to stand up for victims.

We’re edging closer to punishment for rape being abolished in Britain

Daily Telegraph, 2 September 2019

Convictions for rape have dropped to their lowest level for five years – and victims are at the mercy of an arbitrary ‘postcode lottery’, new figures suggest. They reveal that the chances of seeing an attacker in court, already worryingly low, depend in large part on where the victim happens to live.

According to an analysis by The Independent, police in Devon and Cornwall referred only 4.7 per cent of rape cases to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in 2017-18, compared with 20 per cent in South Wales and Norfolk – and then there are regional variations in how many suspects the CPS decides to charge. It’s a further sign of a criminal justice system in disarray, with police and prosecutors arguing over who is to blame for getting so few convictions.

Official figures published last week by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, showed a wearily familiar story: over a five-year period, many more victims reported a rape but the number of convictions has actually fallen. In the year 2017/18, police in England and Wales recorded 54,045 rapes, up by almost 13,000 on the previous year. Yet fewer suspects were found guilty – only 1,062 compared with 1,350 the previous year.

That’s a conviction rate of under two per cent, suggesting that that only one rape in every 50 reported to the police was punished by the criminal justice system. At the same time, fewer cases got to court; the overall prosecution rate fell in the same period from 6.8 per cent to 4.2 per cent. And we know from previously published figures that the situation has got even worse in the last year.

No one should be surprised by any of this. A toxic combination of delays in investigations, paranoia about false allegations and distrust of victims has brought us to this pass. A key factor is victim attrition – complainants dropping out because they can’t endure the ordeal of an inconclusive investigation that drags on for months if not years.

A review published last month by the London Victims’ Commissioner, Claire Waxman, looked at 501 rapes preported to the Metropolitan Police in April 2016 and found that only six per cent resulted in a trial. Victims withdrew in an alarming 58 per cent of cases, showing how much pressure they were under. The average length of time from reporting a rape to the conclusion òf a trial was 18 months.

With police resources stretched to breaking point, many complainants have little idea of what’s happened to their case. Given that most victims know the man who attacked them, and may have to face him daily at college or work, it’s hardly surprising if delays in the system are intolerable – and leave women vulnerable to intimidation.

This is bad enough for victims. But the failure to convict sexual predators has wider ramifications for society as a whole, as the Victims’ Commissioner, Dame Vera Baird, has pointed out. Rapists are able to read headlines about collapsing convictions rates, just like anyone else, and they are far more likely to be encouraged than deterred. Some will go on to attack other victims, believing they are highly unlikely to be punished.

There’s no mystery about how this crisis – and it is a crisis – came about. Historically, both the police and the public have hugely over-estimated the frequency of false rape allegations. Many people wrongly assume that if a defendant is cleared, it means that the complainant was lying, rather than the prosecution failing to persuade jurors beyond reasonable doubt – a high threshold in a case where there might not be physical evidence.

Women’s organisations suspect that the collapse of a handful of widely-publicised rape trials has made prosecutors risk-averse, reluctant to take anything but the the most cast-iron cases to court. It’s increased pressure on the police, who are now making unprecedented intrusions into victims’ private data. The positions of victim and defendant have come close to being reversed, with many women who report a rape feeling as though it is they who are being treated as suspects.

The way to tackle this crisis is equally obvious, if the criminal justice system – and the politicians who set its priorities – really cared about getting justice for women. Police and prosecutors seem to have forgotten that their job is to identify and prosecute sexual predators, rather than going on fishing expeditions for ancient and irrelevant material that might appear to undermine the credibility of complainants.

A shortage of police officers inevitably affects rape cases. More detectives are needed to cut unacceptable delays in getting cases to court, and they should have specialist training to dispel the myths that currently influence attitudes towards women who report a rape. Most importantly of all, and to avoid victims withdrawing from the process, complainants should be entitled to independent advice and legal representation funded by the state.

These might seem like big asks, but the alternative is watching in silent fury as the penalty for rape gets ever closer to being abolished. A criminal justice system that leaves thousands of people vulnerable to serial rapists is failing on a spectacular scale.









America has a serious problem with angry white men – but the warning signs are being missed

Daily Telegraph, 5 August 2019

Few people would deny that America has a gun problem. Last weekend there were two mass shootings, in Texas and Ohio, which left 29 people dead and dozens injured. They have prompted another row about the easy availability of lethal weapons and the reluctance of prominent politicians, including Donald Trump, to do anything about it.

What isn’t so obvious, to mainstream commentators at least, is that the root cause of the problem is toxic masculinity. There have been 251 mass shootings in the US this year alone, according to the Gun Violence Archive, and we know a great deal about the men who carry them out.

Every time it happens, I wait for the same predictable stories to emerge – a history filled with rage against women, immigrants, Jews or Muslims, often expressed in alarming posts on the Internet. These men are angry and they don’t try to hide it, seeking out similarly-minded individuals online and sharing hate-filled conspiracy theories.

For the racists and right-wing extremists, the target is likely to be black Americans, Jews or immigrants. Patrick Crusius, the 21-year-old suspect in the Texas shooting, is in custody after running into a Walmart store in El Paso on Saturday and allegedly opening fire on customers, including families with children. Many of the dead were Mexican and the shooting is being investigated as a hate crime after police discovered a message posted nineteen minute earlier on the website 8chan, claiming the attack was response to ‘the Hispanic invasion of Texas’.

Thirteen hours later, in the early hours of Sunday morning, 24-year-0ld Connor Betts started shooting in Dayton, Ohio, killing nine people. Like many mass shooters, Betts was in the grip of a military fantasy, wearing body armour and carrying a high-powered rifle. In another pattern common among mass murderers, his victims included a female family member – his sister, Megan, 22. Six of the fatalities were black. Unlike Crusius, Betts was shot dead by armed police.

It has since emerged that he was almost certainly an ‘incel’ – short for involuntary celibates, a group of men who complain bitterly that women won’t have sex with them. According to former classmates, Betts was suspended from high school in 2012 after scrawling a ‘hit list’ on the wall of a school toilet, consisting of boys he wanted to kill and girls he wanted to rape. Some of the girls on the ‘rape list’ had reportedly turned down his demands for a date and were warned by police that they were potential targets.

‘The officer said he wouldn’t be at school for a while,’ one woman recalled after last weekend’s shooting, ‘but after some time passed he was back, walking the halls. They didn’t give us any warning that he was returning to school.’ After Betts was identified as the killer, a number of women in Ohio went on the Internet and reported his ‘history of threats & abuse of women’.

In recent years, incels have been implicated in a number of fatal attacks, the most notorious being that carried out in Isla Vista, California, in 2014 by an angry, entitled young man called Elliot Rodger. He killed six people and injured 14 before dying in his car, leaving behind a rambling ‘manifesto’ which revealed his obsession with blondes and his incomprehension that women didn’t want to sleep with him.

Rodger has become a hero among other self-identified incels, including the suspect in a fatal vehicle attack in Canada in 2018. Alek Minassian, 25, who has been charged with ten deaths after allegedly driving a van into pedestrians in Toronto, posted a message on Facebook hailing ‘the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger’.

What virtually all these men have in common is an aggrieved sense of entitlement. Their self-importance is matched only by their rage when they think other people are getting what should rightfully be theirs – sex, jobs, money, power. Some incels argue that society should compel women to have sex with them – a risible idea, except for the fact that there is nothing to stop men like Rodger and Betts acquiring lethal weapons.

Right-wing extremists have a different set of grievances, rooted in unpleasant ideas about white supremacy. Crusius appears to have driven ten hours to El Paso, deliberately choosing to stage the massacre in a town near the Mexican border with a large Hispanic population. The unsigned ‘manifesto’ which has been linked to his attack warned that white people were being replaced by foreigners, repeating a well-known racist theory called ‘the great replacement’.

But what motivates both groups, white supremacists and misogynists alike, is a pernicious belief that they matter more than the rest of us. It is a form of toxic masculinity – the most toxic form, in fact – which has a long history in America, stretching back to the grim days of slavery. Racists are often misogynists as well, even if incels are a relatively recent phenomenon, encouraged by their ability to find each other on the Internet.

One way of tackling America’s unique gun problem would be to make it harder to acquire lethal weapons. But even if that were to happen – and many attempts have foundered over the years – it wouldn’t solve the underlying issue. The US has a serious problem with angry white men, and the warning signs are being missed time and time again.







To understand violent men, talk to the women who know them

Guardian, Thursday 1 August 2019

There’s unconscious bias in the criminal justice system against those who’ve been attacked – as I saw in the Yorkshire Ripper case

So what’s the plan? Has rape effectively been decriminalised in Britain? I think we should be told, because that’s what it looks like to me – and no one in authority is prepared to do anything except order another bloody review.

How many reviews do we need? We all know the chances of any rapist being sent to prison are now vanishingly small. The mayor of London’s victims’ commissioner, Claire Waxman, has just published a report on the rapes reported to the Metropolitan police during a single month, April 2016. There were 501 in all, and only 3% led to a conviction – and even they, on average, took 18 months.

Predictably, things have got even worse since 2016, when as many as three in every 100 victims could expect to see their attackers convicted. Up-to-date figures obtained last week by the Guardian show that only one in 65 rapes reported to the police in England and Wales leads to a charge or summons – just 1.5%. But then the criminal justice system has been failing women for decades – and I think I know why.

Rape is unique because there is no other crime where victims are regarded with such a degree of scepticism, not least from the professional experts: police and prosecutors. The culture of suspicion is now so deep-rooted that police forces are subjecting complainants to a massive invasion of privacy, demanding that they hand over mobile phones and school, college and medical records that predate the alleged attack by decades.

Just about every other expert on sexual violence – feminist lawyers and academics, chief executives of women’s organisations and victims themselves – is outraged by this. But they tend not to be highly regarded by the criminal justice system; sometimes they’re even regarded as opponents, as endlessly making unreasonable demands and banging on about the impact of inequality. Black women are overrepresented among the victims in Waxman’s report, yet we know from organisations supporting black and minority ethnic women that they fare even worse when it comes to getting support after an attack, let alone justice.

This is a powerful argument for diversity in the criminal justice system. Unconscious bias abounds, something I first noticed when I covered the Yorkshire Ripper murders as a young reporter in the late 1970s. Peter Sutcliffe’s victims included white, black and Asian women, including a 14-year-old schoolgirl and a 34-year-old doctor from Singapore. But the investigation was placed solely in the hands of white working-class men who then reinforced each other’s prejudices.

Detectives catastrophically misconstrued the killer’s motivation, insisting he was driven by a hatred of prostitutes and categorising his attacks on other women as “mistakes”. They dismissed the testimony of one of the surviving witnesses, who insisted that the man who had brutally attacked his victims spoke with a Yorkshire accent. Instead they convinced themselves that they were being taunted by the killer, haring off in search of a fraudster from the north-east who mocked them in letters and a tape. And the real killer, Peter Sutcliffe, remained free to attack other women.

It was a painful insight into the failure of the criminal justice system to understand the nature of male violence. Years later I had another epiphany, when I noticed that all the men who carried out fatal terrorist attacks in London and Manchester in 2017 had a history of abusing women. When I pointed it out in a meeting with one of the country’s most senior police officers, he looked aghast and said no one had mentioned the connection before. The next time I saw him, he told me he had returned to Scotland Yard and asked if there was any data on terrorists who had previously abused wives or girlfriends – and was told it didn’t exist.

Counter-terrorism experts had somehow managed to miss the vital link between mass killers and violence against women and girls. Yet I found enough examples of it to write an entire book, listing dozens of terrorists and mass shooters who started out by terrorising female family members. Several cases I studied, including the Finsbury Park mosque attacker Darren Osborne, became “radicalised” and turned on members of the public after they’d been thrown out of the family home. Women who work with victims of domestic and sexual violence had noticed the pattern – but nobody talked to them.

Official investigations into male violence are divided into silos, something which allows damaging myths to flourish. Eight years ago, following a series of damning reports by the then Independent Police Complaints Commission about the force’s handling of serious sex offences, the Met adopted a new policy of believing women (and men) who reported a rape. It shouldn’t be a big deal for officers to accept that a sexual crime has been committed, just as they do when someone reports a burglary, but even getting that far had taken years of campaigning. Last year, however, the Met police commissioner, Cressida Dick, reversed it.

It was part of the fallout from Operation Midland, the force’s catastrophically mishandled investigation into lurid claims about the existence of a VIP paedophile ring by a man known as “Nick”,. The Met’s reputation is still suffering, especially now that “Nick” has been revealed to be the convicted paedophile and fraudster Carl Beech – who was sent to prison for 18 years last week for perverting the course of justice.

Detectives are not usually so quick to believe rape allegations, and it’s hard to avoid a weary sigh over the way senior officers allowed themselves to be duped by a male fantasist. But it’s also hard to think of a more egregious example of listening to the wrong people – men talking among themselves, in other words, as they have for centuries.

The criminal justice system needs to do many things if it is serious about tackling its dismal track record in rape cases. One of the very first is showing some humility and listening to the people who really know what’s going on. Frankly, if you really want to understand male violence, you need to listen to women.

Why must victims of sexual violence live in fear of their attacker being released?

Daily Telegraph, 30 July 2019


It isn’t hard to imagine the relief felt by a woman when the man who attacked her is sent to prison. For many victims, however, the breathing space is all to short as a violent ex-partner or rapist is released back into the community – often without adequate notice or supervision.

The extent of the problem has been highlighted by a no-nonsense report from the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke, which confirms that high-risk offenders are being released from a specialist prison without first spending time in an open prison or undergoing an up-to-date risk assessment by the probation service. Many people will be shocked to learn that this group includes sex offenders who are being allowed to return to the community from HMP Ashfield in Gloucestershire, which has no facilities for resettling prisoners.

Almost nine out of ten of Ashfield’s 400 inmates are regarded as presenting a high or very high risk to the public. Not all of them are sex offenders or men convicted of domestic abuse, but those that are may well pose a threat to women they’ve previously attacked – or complete strangers who encounter them after their release. Yet Clarke’s report also reveals that the number of offenders released directly from Ashfield, due to a lack of spaces in open prisons, has doubled to around eight per month.

‘Given the high-risk nature of the vast majority of the prisoners at Ashfield, this was an issue of great concern,’ he said.

It’s particularly so for victims, who are often dismayed to discover that a great deal of post-prison supervision is carried via messaging rather than face-to-face. Abigail Blake, who suffered life-changing injuries after being savagely beaten by her former partner, was astonished to be told that he will be allowed to travel unaccompanied to his family home in Berkshire on his release from prison in Wrexham next week. He won’t even be tagged during the journey.

Ms Blake says she and her children will have to leave their home in Cheshire and go into hiding when Sebastian Swamy, 40, is released. ‘I can’t imagine he has reformed in any way whatsoever,’ she says, pointing out that he has served an even shorter sentence than she was led to expect during his trial.

Swamy was initially charged with causing grievous bodily harm with intent after kicking Ms Blake to the ground and stamping on her back and chest, leaving her permanently disabled. Her spinal cord was severed and she suffered a punctured lung before neighbours were able to rescue her. He admitted a lesser charge of GBH and Ms Blake was assured that he would spend a minimum of 20 months of a three-year sentence in prison.

Yet in an echo of other troubling cases, Ms Blake has discovered that her assailant’s custodial sentence has been substantially reduced – to just six months in this instance, because of the time Swamy spent on bail wearing an electronic tag. ‘The whole thing is just so wrong,’ she says. ‘It’s neither a punishment for him for what he’s done. It’s not enough time for us to heal.’

It’s no secret that the UK’s prison system is bursting at the seams, with record numbers of inmates and few resources to set about challenging prisoners’ behaviour. Two years ago, the main sex offender treatment programme in prison in England and Wales was scrapped after researchers found that it led to more re-offending. Serco, which runs HMP Ashfield, contracted out supervision of sex offenders to a social enterprise, Catch 22, but is now taking it back and says it has plans to improve staff training.

This is hardly a reassuring situation for victims, many of whom live in fear of the news that their attacker is about to be released. In one egregious case involving a multiple rapist, at least one woman found out from a news bulletin after the authorities failed to give her advance notice.

It’s all been made been worse by the part-privatisation of the probation service, one of Chris Grayling’s most controversial justice reforms. Last year, the government announced that some of the private probation companies were performing so badly that their contracts would be terminated early.

Women’s organisations have been particularly critical, describing a chaotic system where key players have not attended crucial meetings to assess an offender’s likely risk to the public.

But many victims feel let down at every stage, from sentencing – which often allows a much earlier release than they were expecting – to a flawed system of supervision once the offender leaves prison. We don’t even have a register of men convicted of domestic violence, which would at least allow the police to keep track of violent men – and warn new partners.

Obviously many men convicted of domestic and sexual violence will be released from prison at some point. But the question of how that release is managed, what victims are told and the protection they’re offered appears to be failing badly. Ms Blake speaks for many women when she says she can’t believe she has been put in this position. ‘There needs to be a change so that victims like me are given the right advice throughout the judicial process,’ she says.

It’s a reform that could save lives – and it can’t come too soon.