Rebecca suffers distressing flashbacks, both of her rape and cross-examination. Photograph: Teri Pengilley/Guardian
The case of Kirk Reid - yesterday convicted of assaulting 25 women - has exposed severe failings in rape investigations. Rachel Williams talks to a teenager whose own allegation was so badly handled that it led to a damning internal police inquiry
The Guardian, Friday 27 March 2009
In spring 2005, Sally noticed that there was something wrong with her daughter Rebecca. The 15-year-old was constantly crying, taking two or three baths a day, and was unable to sleep, being plagued with nightmares. Sally pleaded with Rebecca to explain what was upsetting her, but to no avail until her daughter finally woke her one night at 4am. She said that six weeks earlier she had met a man who had seemed friendly, but the next day he had raped her.
Sally and Rebecca went straight to the police and were initially impressed by the response. A specially trained officer took Rebecca's statement; she was treated with sensitivity and felt she was being taken seriously. She handed over her mobile phone for testing and a few days later made an official video statement. But as time went on mother and daughter became increasingly concerned that no arrest had been made. This was despite the fact that officers had been given a mobile phone number, address and car registration details for the alleged attacker.
Unknown to them, this was not the only failure. No attempt was made to obtain forensic evidence from the flat where Rebecca claimed she had been raped. No one went to the local shop where she had gone in a distressed state afterwards, and although both her mobile phone and the man's were sent away for examination, the wrong tests were carried out. By the time this mistake was recognised it was too late to obtain the correct information.
When the case came to court, the defendant was found not guilty. Sally's voice grows soft as she remembers the moment that she told Rebecca the verdict. "She was crying and she just kept looking at me, saying, 'They didn't believe me, mum, they didn't believe me.' I said, 'It's not that they didn't believe you, it's just that if you haven't got the evidence you can't find someone guilty.'"
Earlier this month it became clear just why the case had floundered. Having made a complaint about the police handling of the investigation, a damning internal inquiry revealed a string of mistakes that had been made by the inadequately supervised, overburdened and untrained police constable who was left - in breach of the Metropolitan police's own rules - to handle it. This showed that there weren't enough detectives in the elite Sapphire sex crimes unit; in fact, the unit's then manager was pleading with her superiors for more staff, pointing out that the car crime, burglary and robbery teams all had more detectives. Another senior officer in the Sapphire unit told the inquiry that it was "not at all" a priority for management, claiming the motor vehicle crime team had greater priority.
The report, by the Met's directorate of professional standards, found that an arrest could have been made within days of the family going to the police, rather than three months later. And while it did not conclude that the missing evidence would necessarily have led to a conviction, it ruled that the mistakes did harm the presentation of the prosecution's case. At the end of the trial, the judge called the error over the phone evidence a "disgrace".
Complaints about police handling of rape cases are hardly unusual. It is thought that at least 47,000 adult women are raped every year in the UK; police in England and Wales recorded 13,774 allegations of rape last year. And despite reassurances that the investigation of rape is improving, the conviction rate remains at a dismal 6.5%, compared with a figure of 34% for criminal cases in general. The government estimates that between 75% and 95% of rapes are never reported to the police, but of those that are, only a quarter end up in court, and complaints persist that women are not being taken seriously, witnesses are not being interviewed and potential evidence is going uncollected.
The fallout from this is significant, both in personal terms - for the women who go through the judicial process, only to see their attacker acquitted - and in terms of the ongoing danger to the public. This has been brought home forcefully twice this month, both in cases involving Sapphire officers. Yesterday, chef Kirk Reid was convicted of two rapes and 24 sexual assaults and it emerged that officers in Wandsworth, south London had missed several opportunities to stop him over many years. Police identified that a serial sex attacker was on the loose in 2002, and identified Reid as a suspect in 2004. But despite crossing their radar on several further occasions he was not arrested until January last year. Detectives believe he is behind at least 71 attacks.
The Reid case comes just two weeks after taxi driver John Worboys was convicted of 19 charges of drugging and sexually assaulting 12 women in London. Police had failed to apprehend Worboys for six years, despite receiving numerous complaints from female passengers. They had even arrested him in July 2007, after a 19-year-old student told officers in Plumstead, south-east London, that she believed she had been sexually assaulted in a black cab and the police identified Worboys through CCTV footage. But they believed his denials and released him on bail. A few months later the case was dropped. In the next seven months Worboys went on to attack another 29 women, and police now believe that he could have drugged and attacked more than 100 female passengers over a 13-year period. The police response in both the Worboys and Reid cases is being investigated by the Independent Police Complaints Commission.
The failure of the Sapphire units in all three of these cases is shocking. Set up in 2000 as part of a comprehensive reform of police rape investigations, London's 32 Sapphire units are supposed to be centres of excellence, and were designed to improve the conviction rate for rape. The 24-hour investigation teams include specially trained sexual offences investigation officers who arrange medical and forensic examinations and take the victim's initial statement. And it is true that the conviction rate for rape in London has improved since Sapphire was implemented: in 2006 it was 6.4%, compared to 3.6% in 2002.
But the Reid and Worboys cases, and Rebecca's experience, show that serious problems persist. Representatives of Women Against Rape, which worked alongside Rebecca and her mother on their complaint against the police (Sally is now a campaigner for the group) believe that one way to change this is for heads to roll when specific failures are identified. "They won't solve anything until people are held to account," says the group's Ruth Hall. "It's not enough to say lessons have been learned - they've been telling us that for 30 years."
The group also suggests that there needs to be a distinct change in police priorities. "The problem really starts at the top and this report proves that," says Lisa Longstaff. "The priorities for downgrading rape and under-resourcing rape in relation to other crimes are set by the very highest in the police. It's about orders from the top that make it clear this is a priority crime to be investigated ... In many cases the police just aren't doing the job once someone reports a rape to them. They're not interviewing witnesses, they're not taking forensic samples, they're not visiting the crime scenes. They're dismissing a lot of reports because of who the woman is and the circumstances in which the rape took place - if she's been drinking, or she's young, or has a history of mental health problems, or is an immigrant."
After the trial in summer 2006, Rebecca sank into a depression. Now 19 and belatedly finishing her A-levels, she has flashbacks not just of the alleged attack but also of being cross-examined by the defence barrister. She is scared of being alone with men, panics when she hears someone walking behind her, and is having counselling after having self-harmed following the trial.
The report into her case is quite a coup, given the detail it provides of a unit in crisis and its recommendation that four officers be disciplined. But for Rebecca, the truth about what went wrong has not made for easy reading. "Rape's supposed to be the second worst crime to murder," she says. "It's not like petty crime, it's crime that ruins people's lives. For the Sapphire unit to have been in that state shows that it's really not prioritised and the government must not care that much about it. And the people that are getting away with it are just laughing".
• All names have been changed