When the Saviour Becomes the Enemy

Why fewer women are reporting rape and sexual assault

New Scotland Yard

The murder of Sarah Everard shook the country to its core. Back in March, before she went missing walking home from a friend's house on the evening of the 3rd, Sarah was stopped by Metropolitan Police Officer Wayne Couzens, who handcuffed her for alleged violations of Covid-19 safety guidelines before forcing her into his car. Her remains were subsequently found and identified in Kent woodlands several days later where it was determined she had been kidnapped and raped before she was murdered. PC Couzens later pled guilty to all charges for which he will serve a whole life order (life without parole), the most serious penalty for any crime in the UK.

What followed in the weeks and months after Sarah's murder, was nothing short of a comedy of errors by the Metropolitan Police and Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick has faced multiple calls to resign following the catastrophic failings of her force. Giving evidence to the London Assembly Police and Crime Committee on the safety of women and girls in London last Wednesday, she said there: "can be unwitting sexism in the force, that people just don't really think is inappropriate", adding further that the force needs to: "improve and get better".

Since Sarah's case, multiple other examples of inappropriate behaviour, police abuse and neglect have been reported by the media; from the woman who was groomed and assaulted by the officer she went to, to report historic sexual abuse by her adoptive father, to another officer from PC Couzens same unit, who has been charged with rape and the five Scotland Yard officers who joked about sexually assaulting female victims of crime in the back of their police van; the list goes on and on. A Freedom of Information request earlier this year found that in the four years to 2020, more than half of all police officers found guilty of sexual misconduct have still kept their jobs, while in the past year alone, almost 200 Metropolitan Police officers have been investigated for allegations of sexual assault.

All this to say, it is no wonder that according to a survey conducted earlier this year by UN Women UK, that of the 80% of women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted, an overwhelming 96% did not report the incidents to the police.

A British Government review, published in June this year has highlighted the extent to which rape and sexual assault victims have been institutionally let down by the justice system. Speaking to the BBC, Justice Secretary, Robert Buckland said he was 'deeply ashamed' at the report's findings that demonstrated "systemic failings at all stages of the criminal justice process" in dealing with legitimate complaints made by victims. The report was commissioned in 2019 to address the declining rape prosecutions, which according to the Ministry of Justice, fell 59 percent since 2015-2016, despite the number of reported rapes rising to 43,187, from 24,093, according to the Office of National Statistics. Of these reported cases, only 1.6 percent resulted in the perpetrator being charged, according to the Home Office.

Often times, women are told not to walk alone at night, not to speak to a stranger and avoid dressing provocatively or take the well-lit and busy route etc. The onus is put solely on them not to get themselves raped or killed, and if it happens, the culture of victim blaming is so systemic, it's inevitably talked about in a way that implies the woman is somehow to blame. As a whole, in any society worldwide, we never tell men not to rape or hurt women, not to take advantage of their position and abuse their power. This imbalance plays a significant role in why more women do not report sexual assault and harassment when it happens.

Nowhere was this more painfully obvious than with the Met's response to the very valid concerns women had over their safety following the Sarah Everard case, when they issued derisory guidance to women on what they should do if approached by a lone male police officer. From waving down a passing bus, asking to verify credentials (even though PC Couzens would have had a legitimate warrant card) to resisting arrest and running away (let's not even start on how that would disproportionately backfire for women of colour). In this regard, it is clear to see that little has changed within the police psyche since the days when women were told to stay indoors at the height of the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper. To this end, the relationship between the police and the public has never been as strained as it is today.

The evidence and statistics sadly demonstrate that victims of rape and sexual assault are, more often than not, treated very poorly by investigating authorities. Speaking on the review, Katie Russell, spokeswoman for Rape Crisis, a charity that is part of the End Violence Against Women coalition, said: "It's clear there are wider cultural issues and issues of the actual functioning of the criminal justice system in relation to rape and sexual offences." Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Paddick, who served as former deputy Commissioner, acknowledged the widespread sexism and prejudice within the force. Speaking to BBC Radio 4's Today programme, he said: "We need police leaders to acknowledge prejudice within the police service, and who are prepared to do something about it...At the moment, all we get is denial."

Coupled with delays in the investigative process, lack of specialist support, buck passing and even strained relationships between different judicial departments, the widespread sexism, misogyny and prejudice within the police, have all helped foster a hostile environment for victims who are often left to struggle with the psychological and emotional impact of their ordeal alone before simply being told that their cases wouldn't progress to prosecution.

Such was the case with one woman, a Swiss-German national who previously lived in London who spoke on condition of anonymity. She is sadly, another statistic in an ever-growing line of victims failed by those tasked with protecting us. After filing a complaint with the Met in 2018 of sexual assault, rape and gross medical misconduct which included the unlawful administration of drugs resulting in an abortion, she had to wait three years before she was informed the police considered the matter closed due to a lack of evidence. However, communication between her lawyers and the police demonstrate that throughout the three years, she frequently had to chase for updates, and found that even standard protocols, including the retrieval of medical records, interviewing key witnesses and requesting warrants to seize electronic devices and physical evidence never even happened. In fact, the regular 'Full Code Test', often used as the benchmark to assess a case's merits for referral to the CPS was never even conducted.

The Met police find themselves under the spotlight in light of recent events, however, the issues are inherent in police forces up and down the country as well. Public perception that those we have been trained to believe are there to serve and protect us are not only letting us down but are now also the ones we need protection from, has led to a massive breakdown in trust that presently seems irreparable. The government review paints a grim picture indeed, however, as Dame Vera Baird QC, the Victims' Commissioner to England and Wales, has said: "we need to seize this moment if we are to escape this crisis in our justice system... Indeed, it can't get much worse."