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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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.