Comment & Debate
The Worboys case is a familiar catalogue of police incompetence, laziness and prejudice, Lisa Longstaff
The Guardian, Saturday 14 March 2009
If the Sapphire unit - set up by the Metropolitan police to focus exclusively on sexual offences - had been created to protect John Worboys, the taxi driver found guilty yesterday of a series of rapes and assaults, it couldn't have done a better job. We are unfortunately very familiar with such a catalogue of police incompetence, laziness, prejudice and even hostility.
Despite decades of campaigning publicly and privately for the police to take rape seriously, all we have seen is a series of public relations exercises that change nothing. Rape continues to be deprioritised. Each time we complain we are told that rape is particularly difficult to prove. But the blunders are glaring and always the same.
Last year, at a Women Against Rape event, rape survivors described how their cases had been sabotaged by police or the Crown Prosecution Service, or both. A mother spoke of how police lost evidence, so her 15-year-old daughter's rapist was found not guilty. Another had pressed for a police investigation for seven months, after her daughter had disclosed abuse by an uncle who is a teacher. A police clerical worker who had been raped by a colleague was told she caused her own injuries. Women constantly complain of lost DNA, phone or CCTV evidence; clothes handed back untested; the accused being given restricted information months before being questioned; cases closed; women even finding themselves under investigation for suspected minor crimes.
The truth is that the police are the rapists' best friend. There is a comprehensive refusal to act, to gather and keep evidence, search premises and interview witnesses. There is a readiness to believe the man over the woman; to dismiss the word of any young woman who has been drinking or drugged, and even the word of children. There is a habit of delaying arrest for days, weeks or months while rapists continue to assault girls and women.
While the public makes protection from violent crime, including rape, its top priority, the Met and Home Office have their own priorities. Every day rape survivors comment on how terrorism, surveillance of protests, property crime and arresting sex workers take precedence over the safety of all women and girls. Instead of justice we get "public information campaigns" , advising women to avoid unlicensed minicabs and watch our drinks.
What has not been publicised is police research looking for the first time into suspects' histories. Of 677 cases reported to the Met in 2005, a third were "no-crimed". More than half the men accused of raping women who had drunk alcohol, where the cases were no-crimed, had a history of sexual offences. And rapists target the most vulnerable, the least likely to be believed: family members, those with a history of mental ill-health, women who have drunk alcohol, sex workers, girls under 18. In other words, the authorities' prejudices guide the choice of victim.
Some police officers are determined to get rapists prosecuted, but are frustrated by the lack of support from the top. Investigating rape is low-priority, low-resourced work.
In 2007, we raised all these issues with the heads of police policy on rape, the CPS and the government. All they could tell us was that they had a rape action plan, and we shouldn't be too hard on police or prosecutors who make "mistakes". We hope this time no one will believe that the Worboys case is an isolated incident.
The only way we will see real change, as opposed to cover-up, is for those responsible for this disaster at the highest levels to be sacked - just as they would be in other jobs where dereliction of duty leads to innocent lives being wrecked. This time heads must roll.
• Lisa Longstaff is a spokesperson for Women Against Rape