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Credulity and credibility in police work

“Never waste a good crisis,” or so Rahm Emanuel (President Obama’s former Chief of Staff and now Mayor of Chicago) is reputed to have said. Well, whether Prince Andrew allegedly had sex with an underage girl at some time in the distant past looks like a crisis for the Royal Household. Maybe it’s an opportunity not to be wasted.

How might it be put to use? It could facilitate a debate into the supposed ‘rights of victims’. Such a debate has been a long time coming. There has been no shortage of inept police investigations that failed to recognise malign intentions even when staring officers in the face. The ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ (Sutcliffe) was interviewed nine times without the West Yorkshire Police appreciating that they were talking to the murderer. A succession of child abuse cases have revealed failures on the part of officers to become sufficiently suspicious of parents. Dr Harold Shipman murdered an unknown — but undoubtedly huge — number of his elderly patients without stirring police suspicions even after a fellow doctor expressed her concerns.

Over the past thirty years, victims have become a more visible and voluble beast in the criminal justice undergrowth. Feminists were in the vanguard of this movement, protesting about crimes against women, especially domestic violence and sex crimes. They were joined by those concerned with the welfare of children. Meanwhile, the Savile Affair and prosecution of a cast list of celebrities on charges of ‘historical child sexual abuse’, plus the shenanigans over the choice of who should chair the inevitable official inquiry, have kept the issue of child abuse at the top of the news agenda.

Enter Prince Andrew who has been accused (along with others) of having a sexual relationship with a young American woman who was under the age of consent. This has prompted Establishment figures, including his ex-wife, to step forward and insist that such allegations are ridiculous. I have no reason to doubt his supporters are genuine, but neither can I shake off the echoes of my own sense of incredulity when Rolf Harris (of all people) was convicted of sex crimes against young women. How do we know that a seemingly inoffensive person — whether a celebrity or a neighbour — has a vile secret?

I don’t claim to know the answer, but I do maintain that it is a legitimate question to ask. What I fear is a moral panic in which the police will be encouraged to look more suspiciously on those accused of heinous crimes. This, it seems to me, is the emphasis contained in two recent and authoritative reports. In March last year Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary issued a report on the policing of domestic violence . When asked, victims said that the main cause of their dissatisfaction with the police handling of their allegations, was that they felt they were not believed. In response the HMIC recommended that the police should be more willing to accept allegations of domestic violence and abuse. Likewise, in the autumn Alexis Jay published her report into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham, revealing an unprecedented criminal conspiracy to abuse vulnerable young girls whilst agencies charged with their protection disregarded evidence that should have prompted action. Again, recommendations appeared to emphasise that officers should treat allegations made by young women in care much more seriously than they have in the past.

Should the police accept at face value accusations made by anyone? Or should they weigh the credibility of the accuser as well as the nature of the accusation? The ultimate arbiters of such allegations are juries, but when juries have deliberated on such allegations, they have not endorsed them all. There have been celebrities aplenty acquitted as well as those who have not and are now serving terms of imprisonment. Rape is a criminal charge that is notoriously difficult to prosecute.

This is not just a question that afflicts ageing celebrities and dilapidated northern cities, but is faced everyday by police officers who respond to contested allegations of wrongdoing. One party to a dispute alleges that the other has done wrong, but the other denies it and probably counter-claims that wrong has been done by their accuser. It happens most commonly in episodes of domestic conflict, as anyone who has been on the margins of a ‘messy’ divorce will attest. When viewed in this context, accusations tend to lack credibility because the parties have vested interests in making and denying such allegations.

The blue roof lights of a British police car. © trinity-of-one via iStock.
The blue roof lights of a British police car. © trinity-of-one via iStock.

The issue of the credibility of putative victims arose in the course of research that I and others are hoping to publish with Oxford University Press later this year. We asked focus groups throughout the Black Country region of the West Midlands to evaluate and discuss video clips of encounters between police and members of the public broadcast by the BBC (of the kind I’m sure you will be familiar with). One of the clips focused on the police response to an alleged knife-point robbery of an elderly man and his young female companion in the man’s home. Spontaneously, almost every focus group concluded that the elderly man’s companion was complicit in the robbery. What had ignited their suspicions? Well, wasn’t it odd that such a young woman would spend an occasional evening watching television with an elderly ‘friend of the family’? Wasn’t it suspicious that she became confused, even about whether the robber addressed her by name? How could she insist that the robber was ‘about 20’ years old, if she did not see his face? Why didn’t she scream when the man forced his way into the property? There was almost unanimous agreement that there was ‘more to this than met the eye’! Most focus groups were content with how the officers dealt with the investigation, but if they were critical then it was because the police had not arrested the young woman who was so ‘obviously’ guilty. What they were not to know was that in the programme from which this episode was extracted, it was revealed that the young woman’s boyfriend was convicted of the robbery, but no charges were brought against her. On the other hand, when an officer could see on CCTV three youths breaking into a car, many of our focus groups felt that the officer too hastily assumed that they were attempting to steal it, rather than rescuing the girlfriend of one of the lads who had locked herself out of the car (which turned out to be the truth)!

Being ‘innocent until proven guilty’ is a legal principle that receives overwhelming endorsement. If so, the unpalatable corollary must surely be that those who allege guilt must overcome a formidable barrier before conviction can be secured. Crown Prosecutors must be convinced that there is a better than evens chance of overcoming that barrier before prosecuting someone alleged to have done wrong. This undoubtedly works to the disadvantage of those who regard themselves as genuine victims of wrongdoing. It is equally undoubtedly the case that offenders will do all in their power to exploit the ‘presumption of innocence’ to their malign advantage. Yet, it also protects the innocent victims of malign false allegations made for whatever reason. To be wrongfully accused is also an acutely painful experience from which a system of justice should surely also safeguard the innocent. Amid all this uncertainty, what is surely obvious is that prescriptions for the police to believe accusations at face value is no remedy.

Recent Comments

  1. Michael Lamb

    Re “rescuing one of the lad’s girlfriend”. This makes no sense. It was obviously a mistake, but what for? Presumably not for “rescuing one of the lad’s girlfriends” (one of the girlfriends of the lad), but for “rescuing one of the lads’s girlfriend” (the girlfriend of one of the lads). Cannot some editorial attention be given to sentences like this, or at least their spelling and punctuation?

  2. Michael Lamb

    Of course “rescuing one of the lads’s girlfriend” is as much of an abomination as the preponderant variant in such infelicitous constructions with a zero allomorph of the group genitive ‘s as in “rescuing one of the lads’ girlfriend”, which is probably what prompted the nonsensical “rescuing one of the lad’s girlfriend”. There is no such free allomorphy in “rescuing one of the men’s/women’s girlfriend”! It is the fault of the English language that it throws up such conundrums (please not ‘conundra’ as in a recent post!) but it does provide the alternative constuction with ‘of’ here’.

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