The Independent Police Complaints Commission investigation into the case of rapist black cab driver John Worboys has highlighted again the criminal justice system’s appalling handling of rape allegations. It does nothing to inspire confidence in an already mistrusted system, which contributes to the low rape conviction rate, currently 6%. Small comfort too was the IPCC’s advice to contact “third parties” i.e. Rape Crisis Centres if nervous about the police, as underfunded centres continue to fold and funding is increasingly dependent on partnership with police.
Following the IPCC investigation, five Met Police officers have been disciplined. While Worboys raped and sexually assaulted as many as 200 women between 2006 and his arrest in 2008, police missed several opportunities to arrest and charge him. He was even arrested in July 2007 when reported by a 19-year-old student. Believing Worboys over the woman’s testimony, and claiming insufficient evidence, police dropped the investigation without even searching his house. He went on to attack six more women.
It is alleged that officers laughed at one woman who came forward.
A 2005 Home Office report on the low rape conviction rate found “a culture of scepticism” among police officers. They disbelieved and dismissed women’s allegations as “crying rape”. Subsequent measures, like specialist sexual assault officers, have obviously left much room for improvement.
As a crime predominantly done by men to women, rape is clouded in sexist myths. The inclination not to take women’s word seriously, blaming her for being “easy” or “asking for it” reflects the sexism in society. Women internalise this, often blame themselves, lack confidence to speak out or approach the police, and have small chance of a fair hearing when they do.
Rape crisis closures
At one time, women would have had more services to turn to if they were not ready to approach the police. Rape Crisis Centres would listen and encourage trust by being determinedly independent of the police. Part of their function was also campaigning against the sexist ideas around rape.
Mostly volunteers with feminist politics, the Rape Crisis movement established 68 centres in the 1980s, mostly independent, women-run spaces.
As the voluntary sector professionalised, and charities competed, organisations with larger resources were better placed to win funding bids. Small volunteer organisations, without professional fundraisers, were left behind. This was my experience of being involved in York Rape Crisis between 2004 and 2007. The local council only gave £1,200 a year, which did not even cover half a year’s rent! Most of our energy was spent just keeping our heads above water, rather than improving our service, until we eventually just folded.
Nine Rape Crisis Centres have closed in the last five years, due to lack of funding and resources. There are 50% fewer Rape Crisis Centres than in 1985. The government provided a £1 million crisis fund to centres facing closure last year, but that does not give long-term sustainability.
At the same time, the government has put resources into Sexual Assault Referral Centres (SARCs), like the Sapphire project in London, where specialist police, medical care and counselling are all “under one roof”. But access to these services is dependent on contacting the police, an option feared by many women, especially when reports like Worboys come to light. Most rapes happen in the home by someone known to the victim. It may be complicated to get the police involved, but women still need counselling and support.
The 28 SARCS nationwide do not compensate for the wave of Rape Crisis Centre closures.
So there is an irony in being told by the IPCC to approach your local Rape Crisis Centre if you are intimidated by the police. In many cases, that is simply not an option.
To compromise independence from the police in order to keep afloat is a choice that Rape Crisis Centres should not be forced to make. We might be waiting a lifetime for an oppressive institution like the police to inspire women’s confidence. As the IPCC itself admits, in the meantime, there is a need for independent Rape Crisis Centres dedicated to the needs of survivors of rape, and public funding should be guaranteed.