This week Rape Crisis shared a platform with the Met's Assistant Commissioner John Yates, Home Office Minister Vernon Coaker and Dr Alyson Jones of the Lancashire SAFE (Sexual Assault Forensic Examination) centre at a conference about improving police responses to rape.
The gathering could not have come at a better time. Although it was planned much earlier in the year, the regional conviction rates just published by Fawcett earlier shone a light on the urgent need to improve police responses.
Senior police officers (largely Chief Constables and Assistant Chief Constables) from all 47 police forces in England and Wales attended the, variously titled, 'summit' or 'conference'.
The message from John Yates and Vernon Coaker was a clear one – senior officers must go back to their forces and ensure that changes are implemented. The message from Rape Crisis and the SAFE centre was equally clear – survivors of sexual violence must be treated with respect and given the support they need.
All seemed agreed on four key points: 1) relationships should continue to be built between the voluntary sector and the police, 2) there is an urgent need for increased interest and investment from the Department of Health, 3) there is the need for a complete turnaround in societal attitudes about rape and 4) this postcode lottery must end.
The highlight of the conference was John Yates' announcement that 'specialist units' are the way forward. I did experience a bit of a deja vu moment as he was talking (haven't we been here before with Vice teams and Domestic Violence Units?), but these weren't the examples used. Instead, he highlighted the shifts that have taken place following the Stephen Lawrence and Victoria Climbie enquiries. A persuasive argument was made in terms of why rape investigations should be seen as a specialism. As evidence of success, he cited impressive statistics about large increases in police detections for these crimes.
After the conference I went on to speak at the second anniversary event of Women in The Treasury (WITT). The panel here (which included Economic Secretary Kitty Usher) reflected on the continuing lack of women in positions of power and how the speakers had overcome hurdles to become 'successful women'.
It was afterwards that I reflected on the gender balance of the two conferences. The Rape Conference for senior police was predominantly male. The Women in the Treasury event was – ok, you guessed it. And it struck me that I'd witnessed something quite special – possibly the first rape conference about that was attended by predominantly male delegates.
So when did this shift happen? Rape has become a 'serious' offence requiring chief officers to be called to Westminster. It's happened now a Home Office minister not only speaks – but also stays on to hear others speak and to participate in the panel discussion.
It's happened now rape is becoming specialist, 'proper' police work. My point here is not to suggest that men should not be doing this work. Quite the opposite. Rape has been seen as a 'woman's problem' for far too long and we urgently need more men to publicly condemn rape and work towards ending violence against women.
My point is simply that as rape is increasingly seen within the police as 'serious', as 'real crime' requiring 'real detective work', the gender balance of the room has shifted. And my hope is that those women officers who have been in the room previously – who specialised in this work when it did not have its new status and attended women's groups events when it was not seen as valid use of police time – will be recognised and given leadership roles as rape investigations achieve their specialist status.
Nicole Westmarland is a lecturer in criminal justice at Durham University and chair of Rape Crisis England and Wales