When rapes and murders are called ‘isolated incidents’ and our justice system is suspicious of victims, it’s no surprise nothing has changed.
Daily Telegraph, Thursday 3 September 2021
Six months ago today, the disappearance of a 33-year-old marketing executive, Sarah Everard, shocked the nation. A week later, the revelation that she had been abducted and killed by a serving police officer while walking home in south London caused widespread horror. If Sarah wasn’t safe at 9.30pm in the evening, in a residential area of London, what about the rest of us?
Over the next days and weeks, we stepped up precautions that were already second nature to women up and down the country. We checked in on each other, texting to make sure our friends had got home safely and avoided routes where we might feel vulnerable.
We talked among ourselves about what happened to Sarah, scarcely able to contemplate her final hours, while some male friends began to acknowledge that a woman’s experience of being out alone at night is entirely different from a man’s. But we also had to point out that many women live with violent men and don’t even feel safe at home.
“Surely this will lead to change?” I was asked by people who wanted to feel that something good would emerge from this terrible case. I didn’t think it would – and I was right to be sceptical. Almost half of women (48 per cent) feel less safe than they did in March, according to a new survey conducted by Bauer Media, despite the fact that so many people felt that Sarah’s rape and murder was a watershed moment.
If more of us feel unsafe these days, it is because we are sick of being told that rapes and murders are “isolated incidents” – and being given patronising advice such as not wearing headphones when walking alone.
Why would we feel safe? Reported rapes in London increased from 698 in April to 847 in June, and the rolling 12-month total reached 8,182 a month later. That is more than 20 every day in the capital alone, but we know that most rapes are never reported. Those that do rarely lead to a suspect being charged – fewer than one in 60, according to figures released in May – and the conviction rate is even lower.
A criminal justice system that allows more than 50,000 rapists to remain free each year in England and Wales is a threat to women. Earlier this year, the Home Office received more than 180,000 responses to a consultation on a new violence against women and girls (VAWG) strategy, giving some indication of how strongly people feel about this shameful failure of the state to protect half the population. Not everyone, however: last month a sculpture set up in a Sheffield park to draw attention to VAWG was razed to the ground in an arson attack.
The government’s VAWG strategy was published in July and one of its innovations, a pilot scheme that allows women to make anonymous reports about areas where they feel unsafe, goes live today. It all sounds well-meant, but do police have the resources to put more officers into areas flagged up in the pilot? Cuts to police budgets have had a catastrophic impact on their ability to respond even to serious crimes, and it doesn’t seem likely that anonymous reports of harassment will be a priority. Another innovation, a £5million safety at night fund, doesn’t even amount to £1 for every woman who doesn’t feel safe.
The most pressing problem is a criminal justice system that is imbued with suspicion towards victims. Nothing highlights the imbalance more than the practise of asking women who have been raped to hand over their phones, rather than alleged perpetrators. The Government has made noises about placing limits on what officers can look at, but it is a long way from reversing the hugely damaging focus on the credibility of victims.
Women were anxious about trusting the police before Sarah’s murder, but rising VAWG rates – and thwarted expectations in its wake – have made everything worse. How many more women have to be attacked before murders and rapes become the priority they should already be?
It could not be clearer that crimes against women escalate, starting from offences such as indecent exposure – yet warning signs about her killer, PC Wayne Couzens, did not lead to disciplinary action. When he was working in Kent, colleagues nicknamed him “the rapist” because of his attitude to women, yet he was able to transfer to a job as an armed officer with the Metropolitan police. Hundreds of allegations of domestic abuse have been made against serving officers, yet measures to identify predators in the force appear to be wholly inadequate.
The harsh reality is that nothing will change until sexual predators fear arrest, conviction and losing their liberty. And right now, we are no nearer to that than we were when Sarah Everard began her last walk through the streets of south London, half a year ago.