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.