The Guardian: Grassroots attitudes obstruct search for justice
It is 27 years since the documentary A Complaint of Rape caused an outcry and forced a sea change in the way police forces treat allegations of rape and sexual assault.
The groundbreaking film showed a woman, who alleged she had been raped by three strangers, being bullied and cajoled by male police officers who dismissed her story out of hand.
Along the way there have been other landmark cases when the authorities and police have been shamed into promising change. In 1995 two prostitutes pursued a successful private prosecution for rape against Christopher Davies after the CPS opted not to proceed due to “insufficient evidence”, leading the judge to state a sex worker had as much right to say no as any other woman.
The revelations today about how the Metropolitan police missed chances over six years to stop John Worboys – and indeed believed him rather than the victim – raises the question of how much has changed.
At the top of forces such as the Metropolitan police there has been concern about the poor rape conviction rates and much thought on how to improve investigatory techniques and the victim support that the force offers.
Nine years ago the Met set up Sapphire teams in 30 boroughs, where trained officers told women all allegations of rape and sexual assault would be treated seriously. Haven sexual referral units were created where victims were medically examined in a supportive environment by specialist staff.
For frontline officers there is a strict protocol; primarily they are told to listen to the victim and accept her version unless there is a glaring reason not to.
Despite such policies the Worboys case suggests that, at grassroots level, officers are not carrying out orders.
According to evidence, officers working in Sapphire teams have complained repeatedly that their units are de-prioritised and under funded. Some female police officers have told campaigners they would not go to the Met if they were raped because they do not believe they would be taken seriously.
At the heart of the controversy is how frontline officers treat women who complain of a sexual assault. The Worboys case suggests officers can be dismissive; several of the complaints made to the police were put down as “no crime” because the victims seemed flaky and unable to recall what had happened – all of which should have rung alarm bells about date rape, not led to the victims being shown the door.
Whatever the crime, it is the quality of the investigation that dictates whether or not there will be an arrest or conviction.
Senior officers are well aware that behind the high-profile policy documents and public statements there is something very wrong with the way rape and sexual assaults are investigated. They have acted again in another landmark case to give rape investigations to the most experienced officers.
Only time will tell if the Worboys case produces lasting change.