Bernard Hogan-Howe's comments about changing police practice on "belief" of rape victims are alarming.
First of all, it is a misrepresentation to imply that current police practice involves police officers unconditionally believing those who report a sexual assault. After years of extremely bad treatment of rape victims, what we're supposed to have now is police procedure where the complainant is simply treated respectfully, where police engagement with them takes their account seriously, and where the investigation is full and not subject to rape myths - basically prejudices about who "real victims" and "real perpetrators" are and how they behave.
And in reality, there can still be major problems with reaching this standard of conduct, due to inadequate training, inadequate resources and the worrying speed with which some cases are dismissed.
This style of police practice, which is comparable to the way the police would treat victims reporting other kinds of crime, is absolutely not the blanket belief which Mr Hogan-Howe implies, and it is irresponsible of him, in the context of his job being on the line, to pile on terms like changing police practice to being "impartial", "neutral" and "testing the accuracy of allegations" for rape cases when that is already the very job of the police in investigating all crimes.
Furthermore, the incessant focus on victim credibility and "false allegations" in much of the media and public debate around the huge increase in volume in rape allegations is harmful and unfair. And this at a time when an enormous social change is under way in relation to sexual violence, with never before known numbers coming forward to seek justice and more often to seek advice and counselling. Support services like Rape Crisis have had an enormous rise in the numbers of women contacting them about assaults they have never disclosed before. Our society has for years looked the other way and failed to support survivors or to act to prevent assaults in the first place. As we start to turn the tide it is exactly the wrong time to fuel prejudices about the rate and likelihood of a false allegation being made. The CPS' own research in this area has shown that false allegations of rape are very rare and no more common than for any other crime.
Public attitudes to rape, combined with the perception that the police routinely did not believe victims at first report, are what discouraged reporting of sexual assault for decades. And while every rape survivor's decision on whether or not to seek justice by reporting to the police is their own very personal decision, the fact is that our society's collective failure to prosecute rape and ensure a deterrent has led to impunity for rape, which those who perpetrate it quickly grasp. This in turn leads to more offending, as the Jay report on child sexual exploitation in Rotherham documented.
What responsible leaders of public opinion should do, including senior police, politicians, the legal profession and commentators, is be more honest and give a better analysis of the real, key problems around ensuring justice in sexual violence cases. There have been some improvements in police and courts procedure over the last decade, but there is more to do.
In particular, the fear that those accused of sexual assault are subject to 'no smoke without fire' beliefs is bound up not simply with a suspect's name being in the public domain but also with media sensationalism around sexual violence in general (see for example today's front pages on the footballer on trial for sexual assault of a child, as well as much of the way in which Milly Dowler's rape and murder are being reported) and a failure to uphold the presumption of innocence. We could have a more sober approach to the whole issue, where those accused were not painted as monsters and the widespread reality of abuse and normality of abusers was better accepted.
And, by any measure, by far the biggest problem in terms of justice for sexual violence remains the vast numbers who never report it (still estimated to be around 85% of assaults), the impunity for those committing these offences, and the suffering, often for years, of survivors who are bombarded with media messages implying it was partly their fault, not to mention completely inadequate resourcing of specialist support services. If Bernard Hogan-Howe were truly concerned to address a policing gap in this area, this is the one he would choose.
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