Damage caused by incompetent rape response shows just how vital specialist teams are

Dark days. ell brown/Flickr, CC BY-SA

It sounds like something from a criminology lecture detailing the way rape victims were treated decades ago by the police: a 17-year-old woman with mental health problems makes a report to the police and is not only disbelieved, but is arrested herself for lying about rape and “perverting the course of justice”.

It emerged this week that Hampshire constabulary has paid out £20,000 in damages to a young woman who reported a rape to them in 2012. She was not believed, told by officers that “this is what happens when you lie”, and her arrest was authorised by a detective inspector who ordered officers to “fucking nick her”.

Months later, and following a complaint from the victim’s mother, the DNA and seminal fluid from the suspect’s t-shirt was tested – a test that the victim’s mother had already requested to be carried out. Suspect Liam Foard was then charged, tried in court, found guilty, and sentenced to five years in prison.

And the officers? One was given a written warning, and three retired or resigned during the internal investigation.

Of course, both Hampshire Constabulary and the Police and Crime Commissioner have both issued statements along the lines that “lessons have been learnt” and “changes have been made”. But will they, and are these problems local to Hampshire or evident at the national level?

There are so many issues which overlap in this case: police funding and resources, the vulnerability of women experiencing mental ill-health, and the still strongly held rape myth that women routinely lie about rape. It is fortunate in this case that the young woman had a mother who believed and supported her, and was not afraid to challenge the police. It was fortunate for the police that they were not also responsible for her death – since she had attempted suicide twice since being arrested.

Operation Crystal

It is perhaps the height of irony that it was Hampshire Constabulary that was the location of Operation Crystal – the Home Office-funded pilot for a new style of rape investigation teams – in the mid 2000s. But once the pilot money was used up, the investment was pulled and the skills and expertise lost. There’s a lack of proper resources being allocated to most specialist rape investigation teams, and there has been a roll-back on opening new ones under austerity measures. This means that as rape and other forms of sexual violence move up the political agenda, they are also slipping further and further down the funding slope.

This is despite recent research showing a range of benefits from these specialist teams, including improved victim care, improved investigations, improved criminal justice outcomes, improved strategic and operational partnerships (multi-agency working), and improved trust in the police. What’s more, they provide a potential cost benefit of 1:11 – for every £1 spent, over £11 could be saved.

But the downfall of Operation Crystal - from innovative pilot to dire consequences within just a decade - demonstrates that these benefits only last as long as the specialist units and officers do.

Believing the victim

“The starting point of our investigations are now from a position that victim’s are telling the truth” is a claim often made by forces claiming to be forward thinking on investigating rape. This should be routine, normal, a baseline though, rather than something for forces to aspire to.

The myth that women routinely lie about rape is still strongly held onto. It was the problem that started the issues in this case. This dangerous assumption has seen women wrongly imprisoned for allegedly making false allegations of rape. It also contributes to women failing to report attacks, due to a lack of confidence in the police and justice system.

Vulnerability exploited

Betsy Stanko last year argued that the rape of women who are vulnerable, particularly through having mental health problems, has become “effectively decriminalised”, and their chances of seeing a conviction “remote”. Stanko’s research found that 18% of women who report rape had a mental health issue, but that they were 40% less likely to have their case referred for prosecution.

This figure was even more stark for women with learning disabilities. Stanko argues that the police should assume that a person’s vulnerability is evidence that they are more likely to be raped, and lines of investigation should follow along whether that vulnerability was exploited by the suspect. She’s right – but one year on and under the current circumstances there’s little sign of this being realised.

When you mix men’s use of power over women with vulnerabilities (be it mental ill health, use of drugs or alcohol, or previous experience of exploitation) and you add to this a misuse of official powers you create a perfect storm that contributes to the silencing of women who experience sexual violence. Although it is worth noting that there are some differences and some similarities when it is men who are the victims of rape.

I have been training staff alongside Rape Crisis at my university this week on how to respond sensitively to disclosures of sexual violence. We start a line of chairs and add one to it every time someone thinks of a reason why a woman might be concerned about making a report of rape. By the end of the exercise we are always left with a long list of chairs – the hurdles that women reporting rape are faced with. And the question that is on the lips of many is not “why do so many women not report rape?”, but “how do so many report?”

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