Yard unit was understaffed and overburdened. Inquiry says untrained officers handled cases
by Rachel Williams
One of Scotland Yard's elite sexual assault units has been condemned for serious failures after untrained officers were left investigating rapes, despite repeated pleas to management for more detectives.
An internal inquiry describes how cases were mishandled in a department that was "understaffed, underskilled and overburdened". It also documents claims by members of Southwark's Sapphire team that management treated car crime as a higher priority than sex offences, because it was under pressure to meet targets for solving cases. The percentage of rape allegations that end up in court is notoriously low.
Four officers are to be disciplined over the case of a teenager who alleged she had been raped in 2005. The report seen by the Guardian reveals that the suspect could have been arrested within days of her coming forward instead of three months later.
Officers never searched for forensic evidence at the scene of the alleged offence, and vital phone evidence was not obtained. The defendant was acquitted.
Two of the officers involved had previously been found responsible for failures in the case of the rape of a 13-year-old.
The document comes the week after the conviction of taxi driver John Worboys exposed failings in the Sapphire teams, created in London nine years ago to set a gold standard for rape investigation, amid concerns about the low conviction rate. It contains testimony from senior members of the Southwark unit that paints a picture of a department in crisis because management did not consider rape a priority.
Campaigners from Women Against Rape, which supported the alleged victim and her mother, described the findings of the Met's directorate of professional standards as the most damning such report they had seen in 30 years.
An untrained PC who should not even have been investigating rapes struggled to deal with up to 33 sex offences at a time under a "punishing workload which would have tested even an experienced investigator", as the unit manager's pleas to her superiors for more detectives went unanswered, the inquiry reveals. Under the Met's rules, a trained detective constable is the lowest rank who should handle rape cases, but by December 2004 the unit had only two, and in May 2005 it had none.
According to the borough's targets, it should have had at least four.
The motor vehicle crime unit had two DCs, and the teams for burglary, robbery and intelligence also all had more than the Sapphire unit, the manager told interviewers.
She had voiced her concerns several times to the borough's deputy commander in April and May 2005, telling him the position appeared "indefensible" on paper. Late in 2004 she had been called in by the senior officer in charge of Sapphire across the Met to explain a drop in performance figures. She was furious when, soon after, she was asked to provide officers from her under-strength unit to staff a borough robbery initiative.
At the end of May 2005 she fired off a report to the borough commander highlighting her concerns. "The picture painted was that greater importance was given to motor vehicle crime than victims of serious sexual assault," she wrote.
The report said: "Evidence ... indicated strongly that the situation [over understaffing] was known, problems anticipated and action could have been taken to address this, but for failures at [a] more senior level."
The Independent Police Complaints Commission, which managed the inquiry, said the investigation of the teenager's case "fell far short of what the victim had a basic right to expect".
Three officers are to be given written warnings and the fourth, who is being disciplined over his response to the initial complaints about the investigation, is to receive advice.
The alleged victim, now 19, said: "I expected the police to get me some justice. When I heard about the verdict I just felt crushed. The police and the government are meant to protect you - if they can't do it, who can?"Her mother said: "It was just completely mindblowing to see the extent of the incompetence."
Ruth Hall, of Women Against Rape, described the report as a "breakthrough". "This goes explicitly into the fact that rape was not accidentally but deliberately, and determinedly, deprioritised." The alleged victim's solicitor, Debaleena Dasgupta, said: "How many other women and girls were let down as a result of this choice?"
The Met said it could not comment on the report because the disciplinary process was ongoing. There are now seven DCs on Southwark's Sapphire team. A review by the central Sapphire team in January 2007 found that it was adequately staffed by "dedicated and committed" officers.