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Believing victims

Hampshire Constabulary are the latest in a long line of police forces obliged to apologise to a victim of crime for failing to investigate an allegation properly. In this case, a young woman accused a man of rape. She was not believed; forensic examination of clothing was delayed; in the meanwhile, the complainant was threatened with arrest for ‘perverting the course of justice’ and she attempted suicide. Eventually, following belated forensic analysis, the man was arrested and has since then been convicted.

This is no isolated example. Inept police investigations that failed to recognise criminality even when staring the criminal in the face. 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.

Things are now changing: victims of domestic violence and sex crimes have been in the vanguard of this change. The Savile Affair and the prosecution of a cast list of celebrities on charges of ‘historical child sexual abuse’, and the Rotherham child sexual abuse inquiry, have kept the issue of child abuse at the top of the news agenda. Alexis Jay’s report into Rotherham revealed an unprecedented criminal conspiracy to abuse vulnerable young girls whilst agencies charged with their protection disregarded evidence that should have prompted action. A recent report from Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary on the policing of domestic violence found that the main cause of victim dissatisfaction 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.

Should the police accept at face value accusations made by victims? 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.

Dreams by Bjorn Lindell.  CC BY 2.0  via Flick.
Dreams by Bjorn Lindell. CC BY-SA 2.0 via arctia Flickr.

This is not just an issue restricted to such crimes, 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 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 with which I’m sure you will be familiar). 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 that 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 one of the lad’s girlfriend 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 at all.

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