Devon Police’s divisive initiative to tackle sexual violence
Annabel Jeffrey investigates Devon Police’s divisive ‘week of action’ and whether the University of are doing enough to protect their students
Violence against women and girls has dominated both regional and national headlines in recent years : and people have decided that enough is enough. According to the Office for National Statistics, 194,683 sexual assaults were reported in 2022 , which marked a 32 per cent increase in comparison to the same time period in 2021. In recent years, Exeter has seen the abduction and murder of Lorraine Cox , alongside a series of assaults at the city cathedral. Following these events , Devon and Cornwall police have taken the decision to make Exeter City Centre safer for women. As a part of ‘Operation Vigilant’ , a national attempt to reduce sexual violence in the UK, the force has led a week of action.
The week, which coincided with the University of Exeter’s Freshers’ Week, saw uniformed and plainclothes police officers patrolling various nightclub spots throughout the city, aiming to ‘reassure women and girls’. Leading a crackdown on ‘predatory behaviour’ , officers identified those involved in drink spiking , sexual assault and the targeting of vulnerable individuals in key night spots such as Queen Street and Gandy Street. Liaising with City Council Licensing Officers, the force were also carrying out licensing checks on taxi drivers, clubs and bars. Throughout the course of the week, seven people were arrested as a result of these measures.
Leading a crackdown on ‘predatory behaviour’ , officers identified those involved in drink spiking , sexual assault and the targeting of vulnerable individuals in key night spots such as Queen Street and Gandy Street
Inspector Simon Arliss described that ‘the purpose of the action is also to reassure and safeguard the public, particularly the night-time economy community and provide reassurance that my officers are on patrol and are approachable if needed’.
For many Freshers exploring the city’s nightlife for the first time , and indeed those returning after the summer break, such action is particularly of interest to student safety within the city. When asked how they felt when entering out into the city at night , students reported feelings of ‘nervousness’, one adding that they ‘don’t feel particularly safe in Exeter at night’ when on their own. Indeed , almost all agreed that they felt safer when the police force was present; however one student revealed that they hadn’t ‘really noticed an additional presence’ and therefore didn’t feel ‘any more or less safe’.
Insp Simon Arliss added that the force hoped to ‘continue doing this for many months ahead’. However, with the reassurance of police officers not fully present across the city during the week itself and the inevitable weeks to come, some have contested the effectiveness and longevity of such measures.The Devon and Cornwall Police tactic to act as ‘a warning to potential predators’ was described by one student as ‘a small clog in a big machine’, adding that ‘more areas need to be lit up, there needs to be better public transport in order to prevent people from walking home alone – a lot more needs to be done’ .
One student described it as a small clog in a big machine, adding a lot more needs to be done
The University is making its own efforts to protect students – in August this year £680,250 in Home Office funding was received following a successful bid made in partnership with the Exeter Community Safety Partnership. The funds, a proportion of the government’s Safer Streets Fund, will be allocated to initiatives to target anti-social behaviour as well as sexual violence against women, girls and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Measures already revealed include 32 additional high resolution CCTV cameras across the city as well as improved LED street lighting. Moreover, InExeter is set to launch its brand new ‘safe spaces’ initiative in the city centre, providing medical and welfare support as well as a place to wait for transport.
In addition to this, the University launched its ‘Nightbus’ service in conjunction with Stagecoach as of September last year. Services run on Wednesday to Saturday nights until 4am between the Streatham and St Luke’s Campuses and Exeter High Street.
Such action and funds came following months of campaigns led by students and locals for improved safety within the city. Protests such as those of the Reclaim The Night Protest last November have proved successful in gathering momentum for action following the city’s experiences of sexual violence and anti-social behaviour over the past two years.
Whilst this drive aims to improve the safety of all within Exeter City Centre, another student suggested that the real solution goes beyond preventative measures, saying that the problem will ‘just be displaced somewhere else’ and that ‘we don’t have enough police to be at every place at once’. They added ‘a week or a month is still only temporary – change is only change when it no longer needs policing and permanent attention’. From this arises the question of what we as a society, and indeed a university, can do to stop such predatory behaviour at its core.
When asked what they believe the University can do to support women on campus , one student succinctly replied ‘education’. Perhaps it is a combination of two things: practical, hands-on preventative measures – such as those of this ‘week of action’ and the Safer Streets Fund – and a more educational approach of conversations around sexism , gender prejudices and objectification of women’s bodies.