Overstretched police? The answer is more funding, not downplaying misogynistic hate crime

The problem is, when you decide which crimes are less worthy of resources, it seems to be women and the vulnerable who lose out.

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In the past six years, I’ve reported two crimes to the police.

The first followed a severe episode of online abuse in 2012, in which, after I was involved in a feminist campaign, a man threatened to post my details on 4Chan having called me a c*** and saying he would “make me pay”.

The second time was last year, when a drunk teenager hit me on the street near I lived.

I’ve always said I was one of the lucky ones. My complaint about online abuse was taken seriously. The man was tracked down and given a caution. Throughout, the police behaved with understanding and sensitivity.

The second time I logged the incident online and never heard about it again, until an email told me they’d closed the investigation.

Yesterday, chief constable Sara Thornton gave a lecture to police heads and police and crime commissioners, arguing that officers were too stretched to focus on “deserving” issues such as misogynistic hate crime, and should go “back to basics” by investigating crimes such as burglary. Investigating gender-based hate crime was not “necessarily bad”, she said, but “cannot be priorities for a service that is over-stretched”.  

Firstly, it’s important to clarify that the consultation to make misogyny a hate crime involves making gender a protected characteristic, so when a crime such is committed against a woman (or man), the police would have to consider if misogyny (or misandry) is an “aggravating factor”. This could then lead to a longer sentence. It does not necessarily mean officers investigating more offences, although it may be assumed that women would report harassment more if it came under hate crime legislation.

However, Thornton’s comments point to two wider problems.

The first is that we need to stop seeing women’s issues as “deserving” – ie a nice to have – and start taking crimes committed against women seriously. For all the mocking of “criminalising wolf-whistling” and male commentators despairing that “a few xxx could ruin a career”, women and girls feel under siege. The report from the Women’s And Equalities Committee last week found that a third of women had experienced sexual harassment or worse in a public place a number that rose to 84 per cent in young women aged 18-24.

Harassment and assault are crimes, and crimes should be investigated when they are reported. And yet, from the time we are teenagers, girls and women are taught to accept it as our normality. We are taught to put up with comments about our bodies, or men heckling threats about what they would do to us sexually. We are told that if we want to avoid such behaviour, it’s up to us to change our habits and our lifestyle – get taxis, don’t walk home in the dark, don’t drink.

What has been so refreshing with the consultation on whether to make gender a protected characteristic is that, for the first time, women are being heard. People are paying attention to the fact that, day in day out, men are harassing women on the streets – making those streets unwelcoming and unsafe. Finally it is being acknowledged that some of this behaviour is criminal and that women don’t have to put up with it anymore.

As MPs proclaim this consultation sends a message to women that “we are standing with them”, whatever the original intention, speeches like Thornton’s give the impression that women should continue to put up and shut up. 

The comments yesterday seem part of a wider trend where crimes committed mainly against women are not taken seriously. Take, for example, the fact the number of calls about domestic violence being ignored by police is soaring, despite these cases in some cases leading to escalating violence and even murder. When a victim is a woman and the perpetrator is a man, we continue to have a problem of taking the crime and its outcome seriously.

I’ve seen this close-up. I’ve spoken to domestic abuse survivors who told me the police told them they didn’t care about their case (“I prefer working on burglaries”). They also openly expressed sympathy for the alleged abuser (“he is a broken man”). These are not one-offs.

But Thornton’s comments point to a wider problem than whether the police should be investigating a woman abused on the street, or investigating the burglary that happened on the same road.

Because in any civilised and fair society, they should be investigating both.

The real-term cuts to police funding under successive coalition and Conservative governments have been devastating — with a loss of 20,000 officers policing our streets. We have seen a subsequent rise in violent crime across the country. The police service is underfunded, under strain, and as a result more people feel under threat.

So in the face of squeezed resources and no respite from the Treasury, of course it comes as no surprise that police heads are trying to decide which crimes are worth focusing resource on.

The problem is, when you decide which crimes are less worthy of resources, it seems to be women and the vulnerable who lose out.

Why should we have to put up being told that harassment is a part of life and not worth investigating? Why are the crimes committed against women considered “deserving” and not mandatory? That’s before you even get to the fact that men who go on to commit violent crime – including terrorists – often start their violence in the home.

It’s time to fund our police services properly, so every victim of every crime believes they will be listened to, respected, and helped — just like I was “lucky” enough to be in 2012.

Sian Norris is a writer and journalist. She is the Founder and Director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival. She is currently the Ben Pimlott writer-in-residence at Birkbeck University's politics department.