Saturday, 14 March 2009

Are crimes of sexual assault still a joke for cops?

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose? In London it would seem so.

The revelations today about how the Metropolitan police missed chances over six years to stop John Worboys - and indeed believed him rather than the victim - raises the question of how much has changed. At the top of forces such as the Metropolitan police there has been concern about the poor rape conviction rates and much thought on how to improve investigatory techniques and the victim support that the force offers.

Nine years ago the Met set up Sapphire teams in 30 boroughs, where trained officers told women all allegations of rape and sexual assault would be treated seriously. Haven sexual referral units were created where victims were medically examined in a supportive environment by specialist staff.

For frontline officers there is a strict protocol; primarily they are told to listen to the victim and accept her version unless there is a glaring reason not to. Despite such policies the Worboys case suggests that, at grassroots level, officers are not carrying out orders.

According to evidence, officers working in Sapphire teams have complained repeatedly that their units are de-prioritised and under funded. Some female police officers have told campaigners they would not go to the Met if they were raped because they do not believe they would be taken seriously.

At the heart of the controversy is how frontline officers treat women who complain of a sexual assault. The Worboys case suggests officers can be dismissive; several of the complaints made to the police were put down as "no crime" because the victims seemed flaky and unable to recall what had happened - all of which should have rung alarm bells ... not led to the victims being shown the door.

Here in Canada, the consequences of a legal judgement in favour of 'Jane Doe' and her lawsuit against the Toronto police organization would suggest that the system has improved how it handles investigations.

...much has changed since Paul Douglas Callow, known as the Balcony Rapist, stole through her open bedroom window 22 years ago, put a knife to her ['Jane Doe'] throat and raped her. The sex assault squad has grown from a 20-detective, 9-to-5 shoestring outfit to a bustling 30-detective operation with officers on call night and day. Its mandate has changed, too, from focusing only on stranger rape involving penetration to investigating any sexual assault in which there could be an ongoing danger to the public. ...

The squad is part of the 70-person Sex Crimes Unit, which includes divisions focusing on child exploitation, behavioural assessments and special victims. Changes to the system, Byrnes says, are owed in part to Doe's dogged wrangling.

For instance, after recommendations from the steering committee, squad officers now get specialized training. Other changes include:

  • Front-line officers responding to 911 calls only take limited information, so victims only have to tell their story once. Squad members are hand-picked.
  • There is a separate division dedicated to investigating rapes of prostitutes, a group previously ignored or blamed for their own plight.
  • Cautions and press releases no longer contain "blame" language. For instance, women are no longer advised to "close their windows" if a serial rapist is on the loose.

Ten years ago, out of 1,570 sexual assaults reported in Toronto, the squad only investigated 70 cases because of its restrictive mandate. Last year, under the new rules, the Sex Crimes Unit probed 2,551 cases. "We've made the crime a priority," Byrnes says.

The Faculty of Common Law at the University of Ottawa recently held a conference - Sexual Assault Law, Practice & Activism in a Post-Jane Doe Era - to reflect upon whether anything has actually changed. The proceedings should be fascinating to read.


Yappa said...

Really good blog dealing with difficult issues. Thanks.

deBeauxOs said...

And a grand merci for your feedback.

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