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Can we really blame the attrition problem on a ‘Culture of Disbelief’?

About The Author

Lewis Bedford (Former Writer)

Lewis is a third year law student at Newcastle University. Lewis' main interest lies in politically weighted areas of law, in particular regarding conflicts of law and religion. He is also interested in legal philosophy.

On behalf of the Rape Monitoring Group (RMG), Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) reported on how many rapes were recorded within each county, and their outcomes. The reports were undoubtedly commissioned in response to creeping concerns over how cases commonly fall through in the stages prior to conviction. Known as the ‘attrition problem’, cases are routinely ‘no-crimed’ within reporting, on investigation, or during prosecution.

Naturally, the report received a great deal of attention. Following publication, Alan Travis made particular reference to the statistical imbalance of ‘no-crime’ rates between different county forces. Focus was placed largely upon Lincolnshire, which had the highest level of ‘no-criming’ compared to national averages.

According to HMIC’s report, only 3% of rape allegations in county Durham were ‘no-crimed’ from 2012 to 2013, whilst up to one third were dropped in Lincolnshire during the same period. Leicestershire, Hertfordshire, West Midlands, Cleveland, Derbyshire and Northumbria shared comparable statistics, way above national average (12%).

The report also found similar inconsistencies within detection sanction rates. Durham again can be found topping the table, with 32% of alleged rapists being charged or cautioned.  Warwick, however, only sanctioned a mere 6% of cases.

Drawing upon remarks made by Dru Sharpling, Travis raised questions of whether a ‘culture of disbelief’ was impeding justice for victims. According to Travis, the disparities in ‘no-criming’ rates between different forces in England and Wales stem directly from diverging attitudes towards victims of sexual abuse. Travis was of the opinion that a post-code lottery was operating; with some forces holding views more aligned with what have been coined rape myths than others. Professor Liz Kelly, chair of the End Violence Against Women, took a similar view:

The wide disparities between different areas' reporting, detection and 'no crime' rates may indicate that the culture of scepticism remains in some police forces.

This is not a surprise to us. Our member organizations know how deep disbelief and victim-blaming goes in institutions and communities.

Under such a light, tackling attitudes within certain forces would undoubtedly open access to justice for victims of sexual abuse. 

If only it was so simple 

The ‘attrition problem’ has persistently troubled the law underpinning sexual offences. Lea, Lanver, and Shaw, underline how in particular ‘no-criming’ has remained an issue inherent in many jurisdictions notwithstanding a thirty-year long saga of public outcries pushing to tighten-up the system. Indeed, with the aftermath of recent high-profile investigatory failures baring a similar light, history seems to be in the process of repeating itself.

Similarly, Katie Russell, speaking on behalf of Rape Crisis of England and Wales, stressed how previous reports in 2012 showed a relatable imbalance between police forces yet spurred little improvement among forces. Russell added:

This leaves us wondering how many more reports it will take before we see a real and marked improvement in criminal justice for rape survivors.

Russell’s cynicism holds weight. With shifting social attitudes and the overwhelming media attention afforded to ousting victim blaming, it is hard to believe forces still stand ignorant towards rape allegations.  Indeed, Amy Dellinger Page, writing in relation to South East America, found that in the majority of cases officers were aware of such falsities yet unmoved by them when performing their duties. Moreover, King and Brown discovered that between one hundred officers and students in England and Wales, attitudes barely differed. Accordingly, if a culture of disbelief exists, it doesn’t exist solely among police. Furthermore, it must be borne in mind that despite changing societal views over the past thirty years, the attrition problem still remains. Thus, it is highly unlikely that such statistics are exclusively a result of disbelief. Pinning the blame on those on the frontline, already aware of their statistical shortcomings, will offer just as little progress as we have unfortunately seen in previous years.

So what is the problem?

The disparities between forces could be attributable to differing codes of practice. It must not be forgotten that, as the Rape Monitoring Group observe, “[a] high level of  ‘no crimes’ may indicate a local process that records all reports as crimes at the first point of contact and before any further investigation has taken place to consider the full facts” (see Methodology within link provided). Indeed, former adviser to the Home Office, David Gee, emphasized how with no harmonized system of recording, practice can differ between forces. Gee believes that, if permitted within some constabularies, officers may choose not to record a crime at first instance. If the case is unlikely to follow through, certain forces may fear that ‘no-criming’ would give reason to criticize future force performance figures. In a similar light, Brown, Hamilton, and O’Neill in 2007 found that officers were keen to focus more readily upon the evidential quality of the victim’s allegations, looking from a prosecutor’s perspective rather than being solely victim-orientated.

Melanie Newman goes further, stressing how prosecutor intervention may explain the dramatic fall in referrals made by police to the Crown Prosecution Service. Newman believes that, by misinterpreting official guidelines in 2011, some forces have been requiring higher standards of evidence, considering cases from a prosecutor’s perspective, and even conferring with prosecutors about strengths of particular cases prior to proceedings. It seems the Criminal Prosecution Service have placed an undue emphasis on constabularies to filter out claims in order to lower their own statistical shortcomings. In many respects, by pushing duties upon forces to filter claims, police are absorbing the evidential burden that has created a considerable justice gap within the charging process of sexual offences. Indeed, the then Chief Crown Prosecutor for London commented on how “better gate-keeping” had improved detection sanction rates since 2011.  These pressures have undoubtedly spurred a newfound confidence within forces to write-off claims. Moreover, if chances of prosecution seem particularly slim, some officers may feel confident in not recording them at all.

According to Newman and Wright, Detective Chief Inspector Steve Chapman of Durham Police, stressed how forces should be “more robust when quality-assuring cases in the first instance, before deciding whether they should be referred to the CPS for a charging decision.” Newman found similar attitudes in Cumbria, Gloucestershire, Norfolk, West Yorkshire and Essex among others. Unsurprisingly, all scored low ‘no-crime’ rates last year. Advocating this approach further, Steve Chapman commented how this is “good news for victims”, relieving pressure from the Criminal Prosecution Service, and cutting back delays. However, other than statistically reflecting well upon those constabularies, the benefits for victims seem questionable.  

Newman and Wright underline how, “police may be dismissing cases that could be successfully prosecuted”. By filtering out claims, there is arguably a greater scope for error with the possibility that some cases slip through the net and aren’t accorded the full attention they deserve. This not only bars victims from obtaining justice, but also has the capacity to damage confidence within an already lacking system. Jeff Farrar of the Association of Chief Police Officers, touched on the above, stating:

To build people's confidence in the way the police deal with sexual offences, it is my view that allegations of rape should be recorded as a crime when it is reported without question or challenge. This will help provide a consistent approach across the country that is supportive and victim-centered.

Farrar’s ideal would certainly prove useful, however, constabularies are undoubtedly going to be reserved about adopting a system that may open them up to further destructive media attention. As we have seen, recording all allegations on first instance can statistically reflect badly upon the force. On the one hand, despite according victims with the respect they deserve by registering all allegations, forces are ironically accused of nurturing a ‘culture of disbelief’ and looking unfavorably upon victims of sexual abuse. On the other hand, those that filter out claims before reporting at others expense are looked upon favorably as if to set an example. In both situations it doesn’t necessarily mean there is a ‘culture of disbelief’, only a less attractive code of practice that needs tackling.

There is a need for change, but should we be pinning the blame on police?

Attitudes on a whole have a long way to go before anyelementofa ‘culture of disbelief’ is eradicated. However, to ensure confidence within the system, pinning the blame isn’t helping anyone. Victims need to have faith in police in order to get the justice they deserve. By branding constabularies with unstable statistics, matters can only deteriorate further. As soon as the supposed 80% of victims who aren’t reporting crimes speak up, then statistics will better reflect the issue at hand. In the mean time, a harmonized and consistent approach must be adopted.

Further Reading

Alan Travis, Police ‘Culture of Disbelief’ Over Rape Claims Alarms Official Monitoring Group, The Guardian, Friday 31st January 2014

Jennifer Brown, We mind and we care but have thingschanged? Assessment of progressin the reporting, investigating andprosecution of allegations of rape, Journal of Sexual Aggression, 2011

Melanie Newman, Prosecutors Intervention Behind Dramatic Falls in Rape Cases Sent for Charging, The Bureau of Investigatory Journalism, February 3rd 2014

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Tagged: Criminal Law

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