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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear