Everything about working in the Metropolitan Police shocked Jess McDonald when she joined, as a true crime and Line of Duty fan, in spring 2018. Officers dismissing complex sex crimes as just another “classic crap rape”. A black man arrested, charged and held simply for banging on his own front door when locked out. Instructions to practise stop-and-search on the homeless. The detective sergeant, poised to lead a rape unit, caught photographing his female colleague in the shower in shared police digs.
But etched in her memory were her fellow women on the rape team all telling her the same thing: that they “wouldn’t report it” if they themselves were raped. “The first few times I heard it, I was absolutely shocked,” the former detective constable told me, her eyes still widening at the memory five years after she joined the force – and two years since she left, burnt out. “But increasingly you realise women don’t have access to justice, essentially.”
We sat one morning at a table beside the steamy kitchen hatch of E Pellicci, a beloved Italian caf in the East End of London dating back to 1900. The only place, I’m told, where local cops would sit at one table and the Kray twins at another. Condensation dribbled down the art deco wood panelling as tables filled with fry-ups and mugs of tea. Beneath the owner Nev’s gatling-gun Italian and the rumble of regulars, McDonald told me this was her “oasis” when working at Bethnal Green police station.
Wearing a black denim shirt dress and gold jewellery, and her long brown hair down in a glossy sweep, McDonald, 36, didn’t look like your stereotypical grizzled detective. She never even had to do time in uniform, as one of the first recruits to the Met’s fast-track direct entry detective scheme. Just four of her class of 15 still work for the force.
Nev brought her a cappuccino with a heart pattern on top, especially for her: “Where’ve you been, Jess, undercover? We’ve missed ya!” Tipping a spoonful of sugar into her coffee, McDonald smiled a little sadly. After what she described as a “sheltered upbringing in rural Cheshire”, and drifting through her twenties between unsatisfying jobs in advertising, finance, and selling timeshares from a Bali treehouse, she had fixated on becoming a detective.
The reality, so different from her favourite TV dramas, was a slog of poor resources, sadistic sergeants and failed victims. She was bullied by two bosses, who belittled her and singled her out: scheduling her first night shift on her birthday, meticulously listing her trivial mistakes (like failing to attend the Met’s Christmas carol concert), chastising her for requesting holiday, and bragging about writing “damning” appraisals to “destroy” her career. Nothing happened when she complained. There was a “culture of silence” around badly behaved officers, she told me. For a short period she was signed off with depression, and then had PTSD diagnosed as she left.
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In the sexual and domestic violence team, individually managing a 20-person caseload at any one time, McDonald was dismayed at how little she could help victims. Only 1.9 per cent of rape cases recorded by police in England and Wales result in a suspect being charged; for domestic violence, the charge rate is about 5 per cent. The men in charge told her it wasn’t her “job to care” about what happened to the many women left without justice. “They’d say: ‘If he kills her, he kills her, it won’t come back on you.’ ”
Just as McDonald’s new book about her experience, No Comment: What I Wish I Knew About Becoming a Detective, was due out, the Casey Review landed. The report was a historic excoriation of the UK’s biggest police force. Baroness Louise Casey, a former government crime adviser, found the Met to be “institutionally racist, misogynist and homophobic”. Like McDonald, a quarter of women working in the Met told the review they’d been bullied.
These findings shook a nation whose trust in policing was already plummeting. The latest poll shows just 40 per cent of Britons have confidence in the police – down from 67 per cent last year, and 87 per cent in 1981. All the while, across the country antisocial behaviour is rising even as officer recruitment does, and more than nine in ten crimes in England and Wales now go unsolved.
The police can’t even police themselves. After Wayne Couzens and David Carrick committed murder and serial rape respectively as serving officers, and the mockery of Mina Smallman’s murdered daughters – on top of the Met’s racist and corrupt history – Casey’s revelations shouldn’t have been surprising. But the Met Commissioner tasked with cleaning up the force, Mark Rowley, still won’t accept its prejudices are “institutional”.
McDonald, too, was wary of this characterisation. She never experienced “explicit” sexism, she said. “It’s tricky, because the majority of people are great… There are some bad apples who need to be rooted out, but the vast majority of people are almost martyring themselves to do their jobs well.”
Instead, she blamed a “misogynistic criminal justice system” – specifically, the Crown Prosecution Service’s charging standards. Time and again, she would complete an investigation only to be told by a CPS lawyer on the other end of the phone that there was “no realistic prospect of conviction”.
“That doesn’t mean a crime hasn’t occurred, or that there’s not a body of evidence. They’re playing judge and jury,” she said. “It’s almost unconstitutional. It’s quite hidden, how it all works.” She shuddered at the memory of releasing a man accused of beating his wife, and having to personally hand back the suspected weapon: a wooden broom handle. “It makes a bit of a mockery of the whole process if her husband returns home carrying the artefact he allegedly hit her with,” she writes in the book.
These days, Mcdonald only sees the trial stage – she now works in prisoner welfare at the Old Bailey, the central criminal court. No longer based in her east London patch, she lives between her Cheshire family home and Winchester with her boyfriend. But she is still reckoning with our broken justice system, and the police’s part in it. She even believes that she and her former police colleagues ended up doing more harm than good.
“Having police intervention and nothing changing can make the suspects braver and bolder,” she admitted. One stalker, arrested and released three times, climbed through his ex-wife’s bathroom window to attack her while her children slept. “He kept going back, kept going back, becoming bolder, almost like our interventions were making it worse because nothing meaningful was being done.”
Unlike the women she worked with, McDonald said she would still report a sexual offence to the police (“I’d write my statement myself”). But with two-year waits for rape trial dates, she conceded that “you don’t have meaningful access to justice”. She has learned from her time in the police to protect herself.
“I wouldn’t go in an Uber alone at night, that’s quite a stupid thing to do, and I wouldn’t want to be on a dark street alone. But I’ve got a better impression of what crime looks like now, and you’re far more likely to be attacked by your partner or someone you know,” she said. “The police may not be super-keen or all good, but they are investigating every single report of rape fully, the same with domestic abuse: they really are. But then it doesn’t go anywhere. That’s soul-destroying for someone who comes to you for help.”