Photo by Tolga Akmen / AFP
Artillery Row

Women cannot trust the police

How can sexist officers investigate rape?

Just under two hundred women report a rape every single day in England and Wales, but fewer than five of their attackers will be convicted. There is much hand-wringing over this state of affairs, usually accompanied by statements about how difficult it is to investigate rape. “It’s her word against his,” people lament, ignoring documented failures such as detectives failing to check CCTV for corroborating evidence. It’s a scandal of massive proportions, and I’m going to make a radical suggestion — it’s time to look at who is doing the investigating. Maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t a good idea to entrust the task of investigating instances of serious violence against women to police forces riddled with misogyny.

The evidence has been piling up since a serving Met police officer, PC Wayne Couzens — a man known to colleagues as “the rapist” — raped and murdered Sarah Everard in March last year. The latest exhibit is the interim Casey report, which was published earlier this week and exposed a culture within the Metropolitan police in which misogyny and racism go unpunished. (Black women are more likely to be sexually assaulted than white or Asian women.) 

It described how officers facing multiple accusations by colleagues, including sexual touching and assault, have been allowed to remain on the force. In one of the Met’s twelve basic command units, 47 per cent of female employees who responded to a survey said they had experienced sexism and misogyny in the last six months. One female employee recalled “being told that if you fell asleep on a night shift, then you couldn’t claim that there was no consent to unwanted sexual touching”.

They had interviewed the killer nine times without realising it

The new Commissioner, Sir Mark Rowley, said he was moved to tears when he read the report. But not one word of it should have come as a shock. In December 2021, two Met officers were jailed after taking photos of the bodies of two sisters, Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, who had been stabbed to death in a north London park. The officers shared the pictures in a WhatsApp group, where they callously described the sisters as “dead birds”. In February this year, the report of Operation Hotton revealed a culture of unbridled misogyny and racism at Charing Cross police station in central London, including officers joking about hitting and raping women. The report described a workplace in which misogynist, racist and homophobic language appeared to have been normalised, a scandal that contributed to the hasty departure of Rowley’s predecessor, Dame Cressida Dick.

When are people going to join the dots? For years, ministers have bewailed the collapsing conviction rate in rape cases and ordered one inquiry after another. Reports are published, promises are made, but the one thing they don’t do is ask a basic question: who is investigating serious sexual assaults and are they up to the job? Early in my career, when I covered the Yorkshire Ripper murders, it struck me that some of the detectives trying to catch the killer shared his misogyny. They cracked jokes about the dead women, and a senior officer on the West Yorkshire force publicly expressed his contempt for prostituted women. Close to despair, I asked myself how they could possibly carry out an effective investigation when they had such vile attitudes towards women. It later emerged that they had interviewed the killer, Peter Sutcliffe, on nine occasions without realising they had him in their grasp. He was eventually arrested for a traffic offence by another force.

Why have senior police officers tolerated a toxic culture?

Now we know that misogyny and racism are rife at the Met, how can we expect allegations of sexual and domestic violence to be thoroughly investigated? No doubt there are some decent, dedicated officers on the force, but Rowley admitted this week that “hundreds” need to be sacked. Let’s be clear about what that means: as things stand, a woman reporting a rape could be interviewed by an officer who, unknown to her, makes rape jokes with his colleagues and thinks victims “ask for it”. When so few sexist and racist officers are thrown off the force, it is possible that vulnerable women are having to put their trust in men who share the world view of sexual predators. 

The Met was already in special measures, along with five other forces, before this week’s revelations. A seventh has just been added, after Devon and Cornwall police were accused of failing to manage violent and sexual offenders, potentially putting vulnerable women at risk of being targeted again. In another widely-publicised case, in January last year, three officers were dismissed from the Hampshire force after making a barrage of racist and sexist remarks, including calling women “sluts” and “whores”. Two retired officers from the same unit were told they would have been sacked if they were still serving.

Police and prosecutors have long been accused of applying unduly harsh standards to victims when deciding whether a case should go to trial. Interrogating women’s behaviour is standard: why did she wear that dress, why did she take that shortcut? After everything that’s emerged since the murder of Ms Everard, however, it is the criminal justice system that has questions to answer. Why have senior police officers tolerated a toxic culture of misogyny and racism among their employees? Why has it taken them so long to act? Most pressing of all, have pejorative attitudes towards women allowed thousands of sexual predators to go free? The answer is almost certainly yes. This must be addressed if the criminal justice system is to be made fit for purpose. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover