Target culture and the low rape conviction rate

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Last Thursday, for the second time in a month, a man was jailed for a series of sexual assaults, including rapes, on women in south London, and among the major reasons why the culprit was able to carry on his attacks for so long was police inaction and a culture of “targets” which made car crime a bigger priority for the police than serious crimes like rape, which require deeper investigation and do not promise “results”. The report in yesterday’s Guardian noted that it took an experienced new detective just hours to link the man (an amateur women’s football referee of all things) to the attacks, and just days to match his DNA to two sexual assaults in 2001 and a rape in 2002 - after eight years in which he had been allowed to roam thanks to inadequate investigative work. (Here is a report on the first case.)

The conviction rate for reported rapes is only 6.5%, and it is estimated that most rapes actually never get reported. It has been common to blame this on jurors believing myths about rape, such as that a victim is to blame if she had been drinking or if the attacker was her partner. Recently, the law about consent changed, so that if a woman was unable to give consent because, for example, she was too drunk, the man can still be charged with rape. However, the evidence that has come to light in the past month suggests that much more can be done at the police’s end.

This report gives a few examples of the police’s failure to get the case - which, on the face of it, sounded like an open-and-shut case - investigated:

A specially trained officer took Rebecca’s statement; she was treated with sensitivity and felt she was being taken seriously. She handed over her mobile phone for testing and a few days later made an official video statement. But as time went on mother and daughter became increasingly concerned that no arrest had been made. This was despite the fact that officers had been given a mobile phone number, address and car registration details for the alleged attacker.

Unknown to them, this was not the only failure. No attempt was made to obtain forensic evidence from the flat where Rebecca claimed she had been raped. No one went to the local shop where she had gone in a distressed state afterwards, and although both her mobile phone and the man’s were sent away for examination, the wrong tests were carried out. By the time this mistake was recognised it was too late to obtain the correct information.

So, the police were presented with ample evidence, but pretty much sat on their hands and let a rapist walk. The failure provoked an inquiry, in which it was discovered that rape had lower priority for the police than car crime:

Having made a complaint about the police handling of the investigation, a damning internal inquiry revealed a string of mistakes that had been made by the inadequately supervised, overburdened and untrained police constable who was left - in breach of the Metropolitan police’s own rules - to handle it. This showed that there weren’t enough detectives in the elite Sapphire sex crimes unit; in fact, the unit’s then manager was pleading with her superiors for more staff, pointing out that the car crime, burglary and robbery teams all had more detectives. Another senior officer in the Sapphire unit told the inquiry that it was “not at all” a priority for management, claiming the motor vehicle crime team had greater priority.

The report, by the Met’s directorate of professional standards, found that an arrest could have been made within days of the family going to the police, rather than three months later. And while it did not conclude that the missing evidence would necessarily have led to a conviction, it ruled that the mistakes did harm the presentation of the prosecution’s case. At the end of the trial, the judge called the error over the phone evidence a “disgrace”.

It seems that the investigation of rape is hampered by the same problem which led to the Stafford NHS scandal a couple of weeks ago: the obsession with meeting “targets” with the result that work which yields quantifiable “results” is a higher priority. In the NHS, the fiddling of waiting statistics (by moving people into corridors so it can be said that they are out of Accident & Emergency, or keeping people off waiting lists so that they can be kept short) is notorious, and “foundation” status can be achieved while the quality of care is abysmal. It seems that similar tricks are being used in the police.

Besides the lack of scope for an easy clean-up with statistical benefits, sexual assult has the additional problem of victim anonymity. With murders, including sexual murders, the media invariably prints pictures of the victim at his or her best and tells you an awful lot about them, all of which raises a lot of public sympathy, particularly if the victim was a child. On the other hand, we are usually told the barest details about victims of sexual assaults: their age and sex, and sometimes ethnicity and profession, or a few details about what they were doing and where they were going. There are very good reasons for this, but it makes an individual case of rape much less of a story unless it is clear that there is a serial rapist at work, and sometimes not even then. Even the case of the so-called M25 rapist, who raped or assaulted a number of girls and women in southern England in 2002, was well-known, it became “big news” only when he was arrested and prosecuted. Only then could the press put a name and face to it all and hear someone’s story, even if it was the attacker’s. Clearly, then, the investigation of rape has to be done for its own sake, not in pursuit of any feel-good or look-good factor. The public need to be safe, but the police are not guaranteed a conviction (i.e. a “solved crime”) or even an arrest.

Until now, it has been my impression that some campaigners believed that the low conviction rate for rape was the result of the burden of proof being too high, and that only an “archetypal” rapist, a madman who jumps out of a bush and rapes a pure virgin, to quote just a couple of Julie Bindel’s favourite exaggerations, stood a chance of getting convicted. However, men need to be protected from false accusations, and it is no use claiming, as Bindel does, that “research shows that levels of post-traumatic stress disorder is higher amongst rape victims than war veterans”, because apart from anything else, people who join the army (and are not conscripts) know that they might be sent to war, while innocent people do not choose to go to prison and spend five years in the company of criminals (and that does not even take into account the risk of being sexually assaulted in prison). Feminists also claim that “research shows” that only 3% of rape accusations are baseless, yet this research is presumably conducted with less stringent standards of proof than what is required to send a man to prison.

While I accept the need for an end to irrelevant questioning intended to make the complainant look like a whore (and this does not just affect “date rape” cases, as we saw with the appalling Lindsay Armstrong case in 2002), there should be no lowering of the burden of proof by the back door for the purpose of “getting the conviction rate up”, particularly when there are obvious failures in getting viable rape cases to court. The result would be that a few more cases of “his word against hers”, or cases involving inebriated women (and possibly men as well) would result in convictions, probably affecting a few more innocent men, while men who really are a danger to women are left to prowl the streets.

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