A year on from Sarah Everard, do women feel safer?
A year on from Sarah Everard’s murder in 2021, Ben Wilson discusses the failure of police to improve safety and justice for survivors of rape and sexual assault.
TW: discussions of rape and sexual assault
Following the murder of Sarah Everard in March 2021, the Police Commissioner Cressida Dick vowed to restore the loss of trust in women’s safety. A year later it is clear that the reputation of the police force is more important than justice for victims.
In many cases, the problem is the police’s casual approach to reported incidents of sexual assault. Earlier this month the Greater Manchester Police paid £8,000 to a woman whom they pressured into dropping her charges of being drugged and raped, since they believed “nothing would come from it”. They did not make any further enquiries, they did not arrange for any physical tests; they instead made the shocking suggestion that the victim went to see the man who she ‘thought’ had raped her to “set the record straight”.
In a sense the officers were correct. Based on their superficial investigation and failure to collect evidence, the case didn’t have a good chance of success in court. This is not an isolated incident either: in June 2020, the police paid a five figure sum to a woman whose report they failed to take seriously – by which I mean they described it as “bollocks”. These are very worrying stories since 43 per cent of rape victims drop out of cases, mostly due to lack of evidence. Since when did basic enquiries and investigations, the bare minimum, become a standard to aspire to?
There is quite obviously a systematic failure to support and empower victims of sexual assault
The dismissive tone of the officers is highly damaging and creates an atmosphere in which victims may feel unable to rely on the police. Many already feel this way – one in six sexual assaults go unreported in the UK. Going to court can be an intimidating experience, even more so for victims of sexual assault who must publicly relive traumatic experiences and often come face to face with the offenders. It is therefore hugely important that the correct support is available and that stereotypes surrounding sexual assault and consequent victim blaming are challenged, as these can be major reasons for victims dropping charges.
This lack of trust in law enforcement has been compounded by shockingly low conviction rates. Of over 52,000 reported rapes in 2020, only 843 resulted in a conviction – 1.6 per cent. And this is not because of the volume of cases being brought: the volume of prosecutions declined by 71 per cent between 2016 and 2020. There is quite obviously a systematic failure to support and empower victims of sexual assault, and there are several ways in which the situation can be improved.
Some have suggested that the label “rape” is in of itself harmful as people are unable to consider the legal definition in isolation from their own personal definitions and pre-conceived ideas, leading to lower conviction rates. This line of reasoning has led to the Canadian legal system dropping the label entirely.
it is clear that the reputation of the police force is more important than justice for victims
At the most basic level, victims should be supported and victim blaming should be challenged wherever it occurs, as it contributes to the destructive cycle in which victims have little faith in law enforcement and feel unable to continue at trial. This naturally leads to lower conviction rates, and means that women feel even more unsafe.
Finally, and most importantly, reports of sexual assault must be taken seriously in all cases. The police must take a leading role in the collection of evidence, as is their job. This would have the effect of fewer cases failing due to an evidential burden.
If this does not happen, the Commissioner truly is “presiding over a culture of incompetence and cover up” when it comes to sexual assault, rather than addressing the issues.