||Why We Believe the Police Have Lost Sight of Rape
By Lisa Longstaff and Cristel Amiss, The Times , Tuesday 17 January 2006
While Tony and Ian Blair focus on defeating terrorists, are domestic violence, rape and racist assault being forgotten?
SOON after the shooting of the Brazilian Jean-Charles de Menezes by anti-terrorist officers, Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, called for public debate on policing. Now Tony Blair has announced drastic, immediate measures against hooligans, truants and their parents. But the most common, violent and terrifying antisocial behaviour - rape, domestic violence, racist attacks - do not appear a priority for either Blair.
Twenty years ago, in response to women's complaints about how few rapists were prosecuted, police blamed women for not reporting. Women campaigned for the most common forms of rape, by attackers known to the victim, to be prosecuted - the boyfriend, stepfather, colleague, neighbour, husband. As a result, the numbers of women reporting rape have steadily increased. But the conviction rate keeps falling. The public has leapt ahead. The recent Amnesty International survey found that two thirds of people do not blame victims for rape. What the public does not know is that there are grave problems with the investigation and prosecution of sexual violence.
Over the years, the police have responded to criticism with special measures:
1985: when Women against Rape published its survey on rape, Ask Any Woman, they introduced rape suites and special training. Recorded rapes: 1,842. Conviction rate: 24 per cent.
1986: Home Office advises the police that all reported rape except false allegations must be registered as reported crimes, rather than as "no crimes". Recorded rapes: 2,288. Conviction rate: 18 per cent.
1999: Home Office research reported that a slight decrease in "no crime" is offset by increased police pressure on victims to "withdraw". Recorded rapes: 7,809. Conviction rate: 8 per cent.
2000: "Project Sapphire" - teams trained to take statements and investigate rape. The first London Sexual Assault Referral Centre opens. Police claim to have increased charges and cautions in London from 18 to 25 per cent. (Why is anyone cautioned for rape?) Recorded rapes: 7,929. Conviction rate: 7 per cent.
2002: Rape Action Plan including early evidence kits to take immediate mouth and urine samples distributed to every police force. Recorded rapes: 11,766. Conviction rate: 5.6 per cent.
2003: Recorded rapes: 11,867. Conviction rate of recorded rapes fell to 5.3 per cent.
Why? Last month, a 15-year-old raped at a night club immediately reported to the police who could not provide a woman doctor. She went home and valuable evidence was nearly lost. Most victims, already weakened by trauma and physical injuries, are put off by such disrespect, variations of which are common.
After two years of domestic violence, which included rape at knifepoint, a woman complained to us: "They decided I was a mad black woman, so every time I called to report another incident you could hear in their voice, 'Oh it's her again'." We took it to the Met's Gold Group which reviews publicly sensitive cases. It was reinvestigated by another team. Then the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) discontinued the prosecution, claiming the victim was unreliable.
Home Office research, A Gap or a Chasm? in 2005, describes a "culture of disbelief" among police, even among those specially trained in sexual offences, and stated: "The criminal justice system needs to shift from a focus on the discreditability of complainants to enhanced evidence gathering and case-building."
In 1995 we helped two women to bring the first private prosecution for rape in England and Wales. Unlike most rape trials, the prosecutor believed his witnesses, and challenged attempts by the defence to discredit the victims, who had both been attacked while working as prostitutes. The rapist got 11 years on the evidence that the CPS had rejected. The CPS had presumed a prejudiced jury. Perhaps, at that time, it was the CPS that prejudiced.
Since, the present Director of Public Prosecutions, Ken Macdonald, has made it a priority to tackle the low rate of rape prosecutions and that is welcome. But we have experience of CPS carelessness and incompetence, of little interest in working for a conviction, of pointing to the victim's weaknesses to dismiss rather than build her case, and of allowing the prejudicial tactics of the defence to go unchallenged.
Rape and domestic violence are often referred to as uniquely difficult to prosecute: one person's word against another, no witnesses, sometimes no forensic science evidence. Yet racist attacks brought to us, where both assailant and injuries are obvious, suffer similarly. Only 7 per cent of recorded racially aggravated attacks reach conviction.
A Muslim mother claimed her broken nose and cheekbone were from a white male neighbour's punches, in the presence of witnesses. The police visited the white accused, and only then spoke to her. They demanded names and birthdates of her children but, despite her obvious injuries, never asked her precisely what happened. Having handcuffed and searched her black partner, they left. As with Stephen Lawrence, they assumed that the victims were suspects.
Although her attacker had shouted "f*****g n****r", police had not recorded a racially aggravated assault. They dismissed intimidation, saying that they cannot prove who bangs on her door after midnight - just what women who get silent calls from violent former partners are told.
This treatment of racist assault is again not uncommon. A black pensioner was informed by police that her assault by white people was "not a priority to investigate". Two women a week are murdered by partners or former partners.
The police are diverting resources from sex offenders to terror suspects. More will now deal with "antisocial behaviour". Defeating the terrorism of rape, domestic violence and racist assault needs no summary powers and no guns.
Ask Any Woman, Ruth E. Hall, Falling Wall Press, Bristol 1985;
A Gap or a Chasm? Attrition in Reported Rape Cases, Home Office Research Study 293, 2005
Lisa Longstaff works for Women against Rape and Cristel Amiss the Black Women's Rape Action Project
New Police Powers
- apply for repeated "multipremises" and "all-premises" warrants that allow access to buildings owned or occupied by a suspect and evict them for up to three months
- take digital photographs of suspects on the street where arrested, detained or given a fixed-penalty notice - rather than at police station
- take, retain, speculatively seach and share footwear impressions
- arrest under a simplified power for all offences, subject to "necessity" test