Where's the "Lawrence moment" for rape investigations?

Today's IPCC decision will do nothing to tackle the endemic refusal to take rape seriously

In March 2009, Assistant Police Commissioner John Yates said that we had reached a "Lawrence moment" for rape investigations. Speaking in the wake of the convictions of two separate serial rapists -- Kirk Reid and John Worboys, who, despite being police suspects, were left free to attack more than 150 women between them -- Yates said:

We need to reinvent our response as we did in relation to homicide after the tragic murder of Stephen Lawrence.

But now, nearly a year later, what has happened to this "Lawrence moment"?

It was reported today that five police officers have been disciplined over the Worboys case. The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) admits that lives were ruined because police did not take the case seriously. But what has been done? Well, according to the BBC:

A detective sergeant and inspector had received written warnings and three other officers had been given "formal words of advice".

Let's just recap here. In 2007, Worboys was identified as a prime suspect in two attacks, but he was not investigated and was left free to carry out at least seven further assaults. He is thought to have attacked more than 100 women in total. In the face of the horrific extent of his crimes and of the police failing, written warnings are frighteningly inadequate.

However, in the light of statistics and reports on rape conviction rates, the slap on the wrist these officers received begins to look sadly typical.

Of the rapes reported between 2007 and 2008, only 6.5 per cent ended in conviction, compared to 34 per cent of criminal cases in general. Given that an estimated 95 per cent of rapes are never reported at all, the conviction rate is minuscule. Most of the convictions resulted from an admission of guilt by the defendant, and less than a quarter of those charged with rape were convicted following a successful trial. Up to two-thirds of all rape cases never made it to trial anyway.

Figures for 2006 obtained by the Fawcett Society showed that, despite government funding, the postcode lottery for rape victims had worsened. In Dorset, the area with the lowest conviction rates, fewer than one in 60 cases ended in a sentence, while in Cleveland, where convictions were most frequent, the rate was 18.1 per cent. The conviction rate across England and Wales had risen slightly above that of the previous year, but it had fallen in 16 out of of 42 police forces.

Research by London Metropolitan University shows that Britain has the lowest rape conviction rates of all 33 European states. Just 6.5 per cent of cases reported to the police end in conviction, compared to 25 per cent in France. More worryingly, the proportion of complaints leading to conviction has actually been steadily declining. In the 1970s it was one in three, in 1990 it was one in six, but today it is just one in 15.

A 2007 government report attributes this record to scepticism among police and the "view that the victim lacks credibility", as well as to delays with investigations, inappropriate behaviour from investigators, and "unpleasant environments" for victims.

The culture of distrust and the refusal to take rape cases seriously are endemic and entrenched. The IPCC commissioner, Deborah Glass, said that Worboys's victims were "let down by the Met". But if the fallout from major police failings is nothing more than a few written warnings, the attitude that rape doesn't matter will only persist.

The IPCC has attracted vehement criticism in the past for its soft-on-police verdicts, but let's hope that the tragic Worboys and Reid cases lead to an investigation on the same scale as the Macpherson report. A "Lawrence moment" is exactly what we desperately need.

 

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.