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15 September 2010

Inquiry into police handling of rape to be scrapped

Home Office withdraws funding for major review prompted by serious police failings on rape cases.

By Samira Shackle

A major investigation into the police handling of rape cases has been shelved to cut costs.

The Home Office claims that the £441,000 HM Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) study will “duplicate” other reviews by Lady Stern and Sara Payne. This study was to scrutinise rape investigations from beginning to end, including the way in which police build their cases and — crucially — deal with both the victim and the accused. A watered-down version, looking just at offenders, has been proposed, but this too may be vulnerable to cuts.

The nationwide inquiry into police standards was prompted by two horrific cases, in which errors in police-handling and intelligence sharing left serial rapists free to reoffend, again and again.

The first was John Worboys, the London taxi driver who was able to attack literally hundreds of women because officers did not believe victims’ initial reports. Unbelievably, one woman was told that black cab drivers “don’t do that sort of thing”.

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Just a few weeks later, in a separate case, Kirk Reid was convicted of twenty-six sex attacks, including two rapes. He is thought to have attacked more than 70 women, despite the fact that he came to the police’s attention 12 times before he was arrested and charged. He had even been interviewed by them. Scotland Yard’s Assistant Commissioner, John Yates, called it a “Lawrence moment” for rape cases, although clearly this has been nipped in the bud.

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Perhaps these are extreme cases, but clearly, there is a problem — not just with the attitudes of individual police, but with the systemic failure to handle these complex cases effectively. Apart from the culture of disbelief is the numbers game; reportedly, some chief constables are unwilling to pursue cases to the highest possible level, in case their statistics are negatively affected by acquittals.

There are huge issues here that need to be addressed, about the way that information is recorded and joined up. Over and above this, though, is the level of seriousness that must be attached. It is easy for officers to ignore a rape case or fail to take the effort to join up the dots, if it is not treated as a serious crime. Scrapping the audit will compound this, by sending off a clear message that rape is unimportant. Dave Gee, an adviser to the government on rape, puts it thus to the Times (£):

A lot of the forces rely on the impetus that inspections give as they focus minds. Once the inspections are removed then the message is that it’s not that important. It goes off the boil.

This undermining of the issue echoes the proposal — now, thankfully, scrapped — to bring in anonymity for rape defendants. This government is certainly not giving off the impression that it takes rape, or its victims, seriously.