Thursday, October 14, 2021

The importance of trusting the system – and of having trustworthy systems – in cases of sexual abuse.

 By Kieran McCartan, Ph.D., David S. Prescott, LICSW, & Kasia Uzieblo, Ph.D.

Working to prevent sexual abuse is a difficult and challenging endeavour. The nature(s) of sexual offending is complex and difficult for people to comprehend at times – why would someone rape? Or sexually assault a child? Professionals in the field often hear that people who commit sexual abuse are mad, bad, or sad, and some of them are, but not all. As we have discussed over many years, sexual abuse is common in society, too common for the people who commit it to be abnormal, random strangers.

People who sexual abuse live and work in our communities and are often people we know. This can present challenges for us as communities, since sexual abuse is so common it has been normalized in some quarters (for example, see previous blog posts regarding abuse within religious institutions, sports, and university campuses). This is not acceptable and should never be.

The seeming acceptability of sexual abuse weakens victims’ motivation to seek justice and get support; they often feel that they will not be heard and will not get what they need from the criminal justice system. In the UK, this has often been the case with police not always investigating cases or pushing cases to the Crown Prosecution Service. In the end, victims feel unheard, unsupported, and disenfranchised.

Over the last couple of months suspicion towards the legal system has gotten worse with the prosecution of Wayne Couzens, a serving police officer, who abducted, raped, and murdered Sarah Everard in London and the Met (London’s police force) response to the case. One wonders whether trust at the institutional level can be rebuilt and what are the consequences for female victims of sexual abuse if they do trust the system, the police, or society to take the offence seriously.

Although it hasn’t received much coverage in the US, the Everard case has galvanized the UK. Sarah Everard was walking alone, home from a friend’s house in London early this year during the height of the national lockdown when she was stopped by Wayne Couzens a serving (but off duty) police officer, who “arrested” her under COVID-19 legislation. He convinced her to get into his “unmarked police car”, which was a rental car, where drove her out of London, raped, and murdered her. The footage was caught on CCTV as was additionally footage of his movements and behaviour.

As the case unfolded, it turned out that Couzens had a history of misogyny, engaging with prostitutes, exposing himself to strangers, and other antisocial behaviour that the police where aware of but did nothing about. It became public during his sentencing (he received a life sentence) that colleagues knew about his actions and referred to him as the “rapist”.

There were warning signs. The response from the Met police force stopped short of a rogue case explanation, but we know that’s not true, as there have been other cases of serving and retired police officers engaging in sexually inappropriate and sexually abusive be haviour. The real is issue for the police is that they did not acknowledge his worrying behaviour which then gives the impression that they do bot take sexual abuse seriously. To make matters worse the Met suggested that women who did not feel safe being stopped by a police officer should be “shouting out to a passerby, running into a house, knocking on a door, waving a bus down or, if you are in the position to do so, calling 999.” This response has been criticized across the board and is seen as the ultimate example of the problem, it suggests that the Met police force does not think that it needs to change, does not take responsibility for what happened, and (again) suggests that victims are responsible for their own safeguarding. This case has has completely undermined trust in the police in the UK and makes victims less likely to report sexual abuse cases, and if they do make them less likely to pursue convictions.

What should the Met have done? How can they rebuild trust and accountability? There are several enquiries going on currently into what was known by who, for how long and what was, or was not, done about it. But these all take too long and there needs to be a short/medium term response. The police need to:

-       Admit that they mishandled the case.

-      Accept that there are issues with members of the police, the same way that there are members of any organisation, and pledge to do more about it internally.

-      Consider how they assess potential candidates to the police as well as monitor and check in with serving officers.

-      Recognize their severe public relations problem and spend time in communities finding out what their perceptions of the police and surrounding expectations are as well as how they can change them.

-      Confront misogyny within the police, the way that they have started to deal with race and ethnicity, and develop realistic standards hat officers must attend to.

While we recognize that there are good and proactive police officers and that this case is a rare, extreme example it does highlight that there needs to be more done around misogyny, sexism, and attitudes to sexual abuse within the police. Victims need to know that they will be supported by the police and that reporting sexual abuse is more than a paper exercise.


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