How UK police are failing to protect women

How UK police are failing to protect women

Lisa Longstaff from Women Against Rape writes about how the UK police force is enabling an epidemic of violence against women. 


In June a partially leaked report revealed that nearly 70,000 crimes were going unrecorded each year in London. The Metropolitan Police was put into Special Measures following the review by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS). Special Measures grants HMI the power to demand change and to insist on its implementation. 

The review found patterns of failure to identify or protect the most vulnerable crime victims, including people suffering repeat crimes. The proportions of recorded sexual offences are so strikingly below those in other big cities, that accusations of manipulation are being raised. This is also true with stop and search, which targets young men of colour since in a quarter of stops, no reasons had been recorded, evading security. 

The media has repeated some of the more scandalous police behaviour. Police selfies with the bodies of murdered Black sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman. The rape and murder of Sarah Everard by a serving officer. Refusal to investigate Stephen Port, the serial killer of young gay men which could have spared later victims. WhatsApp exchanges boasting of violence against women and Black people. 

The key questions we want HMI to address are: will the police be forced to do their job, and will police be held accountable when they break the law? 

The widespread rape of children reported in 2014 should have conveyed that the police were out of public control. In many towns and cities adult men ran (and still run) rape rings with underage children, especially girls in care for whose safety the State was responsible. The local government and the police were complicit in sexually exploiting children over years but neither police nor politicians have been charged. Hillsborough and Rotherham are glaring examples of victims, including children, being blamed, and even prosecuted while police remain protected. Even last month’s reports on abuse in Rotherham and Oldham let them off the hook. Survivors once again expressed their rage. 

HOW CAN WE EXPECT THE POLICE TO INVESTIGATE VIOLENT MEN WHEN THEY ARE VIOLENT THEMSELVES?

A woman is murdered every three days by a partner or ex-partner, often after many calls for help to the police. Nearly 70,000 rapes were reported in 2021. But the conviction rate for reported rape fell to around 1%. 

Maggie Blyth, head of a Taskforce on Violence Against Women and Girls, said in October their new “perpetrator-focused approach… involves attempting to disrupt and track suspected sex offenders including rapists, instead of focusing on the credibility of victims”. How damning that this had to be stated and there is no evidence that it will be enforced. 

The police manhandled women at Sarah Everard’s vigil. Building on the police racism Black Lives Matter had been exposing, a series of women-led protests established that the police are not only violent against people of colour but against women and in fact anyone they don’t like. Protestors decried how the police have themselves committed horrific crimes and almost always evaded prosecution. As different sectors of the movement – some veterans, many first timers – we felt the power of being together, and the spirit was: we’ve had enough! 

So many sectors of the population are speaking out against the way we are policed, that the same media that previously shielded police illegality is finally calling it. This has been helped by women journalists as well as police women telling their inside story, and by wives and partners who have been victimised by serving officers whose mates ensured they would never get justice. Police women in senior positions who had kept their mouths shut to keep their job now describe the assaults they had hidden. 

Former police Chief Constable Sue Fish said some of her colleagues expected sex with vulnerable victims of crime, and considered it “a perk of the job”. Ex-Scotland Yard Deputy Assistant Commissioner David Gilbertson described an “epidemic” of hidden violence, including officers in domestic violence units who “actively searched out vulnerable women for sexual gratification, and in order to gain access to their children for sexual purposes”. 

FOR YEARS WE HAVE DEMANDED THAT RAPE, RACIST ATTACKS AND DOMESTIC VIOLENCE BE TREATED AS SERIOUS CRIMES, AND WE’VE WON BETTER LAWS AND POLICIES

In May 2021, victims of police domestic abuse described on BBC Woman’s Hour how police colleagues refused to investigate and back a prosecution. One perpetrator said he could do anything, and threatened to have her child removed if she complained.

A rape survivor came to us terrified by a detective repeatedly propositioning her at her home. After several women reported him, he was quietly relieved of his job but not prosecuted, leaving others at risk. Another woman who reported her policeman husband for rape and domestic violence faced an investigation so biased and threatening of her life that she emigrated. A third was sexually assaulted while in custody. A fourth was a serving police officer devastated by the impunity enjoyed by her colleague. 

In October, Channel 4 Dispatches exposed almost 2,000 reports of police sexual misconduct in four years: Most stayed in their jobs, or retired on a full pension. Survivors set up various #MeTooPolice sites and there were calls, including from us, for [former Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police] Cressida Dick to go. But Home Secretary Priti Patel and then Prime Minister Johnson defended her. We must assume this is the policing they wanted. But the public exposure of police illegality, sexism, racism and homophobia was so unrelenting that Mayor of London Sadiq Khan gave her the final push and she resigned.

What standards must replace what has been so roundly discredited under the reign of Cressida Dick?

Not only criminal behaviour by individual officers must be prosecuted but policies that encourage such behaviour must be repealed. Most importantly, the impunity that has prevailed despite many justice campaigns against rape and sexual abuse, strip searching of women and children on spurious grounds (like Child Q and hundreds of others each year), racist stop and search, homophobia, violence against disabled people, institutional corruption, deaths in custody… must end.

The appointment of Cressida Dick was itself a case of impunity. In 2005, Dick’s orders led to the killing of Jean Charles De Menezes, an innocent Brazilian electrician on his way to work, wrongly labelled a “terrorist”. Defending the indefensible was Dick’s policy and she got promoted for it. 

AN END TO IMPUNITY IN THE POLICE, AS IN THE GOVERNMENT, IS CENTRAL TO ANY SERIOUS CHANGE

A police force that grants impunity attracts men who long to impose their will, biases and violence on the public, especially on women, children, people of colour, immigrants, sex workers, and others who suffer discrimination and are therefore assumed to be less likely to complain. Such men once recruited will reinforce each other and undermine any officers who joined to protect the public. How can we expect the police to investigate violent men when they are violent themselves and corrupt colleagues are promoted?

Sue Fish said that “empathy, compassion, conscientiousness, diligence are not assessed, looked at, examined at all in terms of recruitment, training, reward and promotion of police officers”. But there has been no indication that the new commissioner* is being selected to implement these standards.

Instead, the government has been passing legislation that strengthens police powers and impunity. Despite widespread protests in dozens of cities and towns across the UK, two particularly repressive laws were passed. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act gives the police sweeping new powers, moving us towards a police state. It will criminalise working class communities, especially people of colour and Gypsy, Roma, Travellers, and enable much longer sentences even for children. 

Together with Women of Colour Global Women’s Strike, we have spelled out how the new police powers extend stop and search to protesters, targeting women who have been at the forefront of every protest in recent years from racism to rape to climate justice to Palestinian rights. The Lords defeated these increased stop and search powers but the new Public Order Bill is bringing them back. The lack of scrutiny over stop and search which HMI exposed along with other abuses of power will be legalised if this new Bill is passed.

The horrific Nationality and Borders Act will prevent refugees getting citizenship, increasing rape, destitution and deportation. Its twin Rwanda Plan was denounced even by religious authorities, driven by congregations all over the UK. The public outrage is so widespread that people have organised to greet boats of refugees with food, clothing and shelter, and deportation flights have been blocked.  As Global Women Against Deportation have said, “the growing anti-deportation movement is determined to defend the rights of all seeking refuge from war, the climate crisis, sanctions, starvation and the impact of colonial theft.” 

For years our movements have demanded that rape, racist attacks and domestic violence be treated as serious crimes, and we won shifts in public opinion and better laws and policies. But the police, in joint enterprise with the Crown Prosecution Service, have ignored these, establishing their own priorities and procedures without reference to either parliament or people. While calling for victims to come forward, implying that it is we who are holding back justice, they have responded to the avalanche of reports by discrediting the victims and closing cases. Rape has been practically decriminalised. 

Like Cressida Dick, Boris Johnson was forced to resign because he defended the indefensible, including his appointment of an MP known to be a serial sexual abuser. 

But the many sectors of society who have been protesting, reinforcing each other, know that an end to impunity in the police, as in the government, is central to any serious change.


*Mark Rowley was appointed new commissioner of the Metropolitan police on Friday 8th July

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