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Why the question of “belief” could be a damaging step back for sex abuse survivors

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The commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, has hit the headlines for saying that a new inquiry should examine whether to end a policy of police automatically believing alleged rape and sexual assault victims.

Speaking as he launched a review into the Met’s handling of historical sex abuse allegations against high-profile public figures, Hogan-Howe said while alleged victims should be treated with ‘empathy’, the practice of assuming they’re telling the truth could be scrapped.

“I think we've really got hung up on this word ‘belief’,” he told the BBC. “We've of course got to be empathetic, we want people to believe we're going to at least listen to them, we want to be open-minded to what they tell us, and then what the suspects tell us, and then we've got to test all the evidence.

“And I think there’s a grave danger at the moment with the advice that’s around that perhaps there’s the tendency to think that we will always believe any complaint that is made.”

Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe

Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe

The resulting headlines, the ones that people absorb in seconds, essentially read ‘Met chief says police shouldn’t automatically believe victims of sex crimes’.

Is this helpful to a survivor of any sex crime, historical or not?

It’s useful to look at where this idea of instant belief, of ‘guilty until proven innocent’ has come from.

Writing for The Guardian, Hogan-Howe points to a 2014 report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC). The report revealed statistics about the way the recording of all crime is handled, and within that, brought up serious concerns over the processing of sex crime reports in particular.

It included the recommendation that “the presumption that a victim should always be believed should be institutionalised” – referring to the first instance of reporting all crimes, not just sex-related offences.

The way this quote is being bandied around now in relation to sex crimes is potentially harmful, running the risk of perpetuating the belief that people often walk into a police station, falsely accuse someone of rape for fun or revenge, and have an innocent person put away for life.

Hogan-Howe went on: “The public should be clear that officers do not believe unconditionally what anyone tells them. They are listened to, sometimes at length, before the decision is made to begin an investigation.

"A good investigator would test the accuracy of the allegations and the evidence with an open mind, supporting the complainant through the process. This is a more neutral way to begin than saying we should believe victims, and better describes our impartial mindset.”

Casting doubt

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It is right to expect a fair investigation into any reported crime. I agree that the police should not automatically believe anyone, be they accuser or accused, as the word ‘believe’ implies taking sides from the outset.

But that's a different thing to being taken seriously, and in the context of years of victim blaming and mistrust, many people’s take-home message from the allusion to "belief" will be that their story will be greeted with suspicion.

Yes, the new inquiry is focusing on historical allegations in particular, but at a time when rape victims are still told they’re “extremely foolish” for getting too drunk to defend themselves, when 16-year-old girls are accused of grooming their 44-year-old teachers, when even cases of violent muggings are dropped because the amount of cocktails the victim had (never mind the broken teeth and jaw damage) meant she was not a credible witness, it’s vitally important we all choose our words carefully.

Culture of silence

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Rape and abuse charities have been quick to discuss the potential damage Hogan-Howe's comments – and by extension, the way they have been relayed in the media – could have.

Yvonne Traynor, a spokesperson for Rape Crisis, says there’s a serious risk of perpetuating the idea that false rape allegations are common.

“This decision appears to be a knee-jerk reaction to current media stories, but this approach would turn the clocks back 20 years when frontline officers decided, based on their own belief system, whether a complainant was ‘telling the truth’.

“This position led to many cases being undetected and deterred most victims of sexual offences from coming forward. Returning to this stance would deter even the woefully low 15 per cent of survivors who currently do come forward.

“Research has already shown that only 3 per cent of allegations of sexual violence are fabricated – the same percentage of allegations of any crime. The criminal justice system is already a difficult process for survivors who have to talk about their most difficult experiences, to add this obstacle is going to make it impossible for them to get the justice they deserve.

“Survivors of serious sexual offences need to be encouraged to come forward, not deterred, disbelieved and silenced.”

A backwards step

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An NSPCC spokesperson said the charity hoped that victims of sexual abuse are not discouraged from speaking out.

“For someone to talk about the cruelty they endured takes unimaginable bravery, and they must feel confident that they will be listened to […]

“At a time when people have at long last found the confidence and courage to report these crimes it would be a tragedy to bring this progress to a juddering halt.

“Telling those who have been sexually abused they will no longer be automatically believed seems to be a panic measure which could have an adverse effect on a crime the government has classified as a ‘national threat.’”

Fay Maxted, chief executive officer of The Survivors Trust, shares the concerns.

“Many suffer in silence for years, with toxic feelings of shame and inappropriate guilt, before finally gathering the courage to report to the police. Many never do.

“It is crucial that when an allegation of sexual abuse is made it is taken seriously and a thorough investigation is pursued. No one should feel that they are being judged or that an investigation might be compromised because there is any doubt about what they have said.

“It is the police's duty to investigate and the public expect them to do so, without bias or preconceived ideas. The two national inquiries underway are exposing the shocking prevalence of child sexual abuse in this country. Casting doubt on victims would be a backwards step in the battle against the awful crimes committed against defenceless children.”

Turning the tide

That 2014 HMIC report revealed 26 per cent of all sexual offences (including rape) reported to police nationally are not properly recorded as crimes. Additionally, the incorrect striking off of a rape as a ‘no crime’ – sometimes with complainants not even being told it was happening – stands at 20 per cent.

Those are horrifying figures to comprehend, not least in the context of just 15 per cent of victims feeling able to report a sex crime in the first place. And they are some of the figures that prompted the ‘belief’ recommendation to improve how crime is dealt with at point of reporting.

I strongly doubt it was intended to mean that all those claiming to have suffered sexual assault should be believed throughout investigation, whatever the cost to the truth. Yet that's the damaging misrepresentation threatening to strengthen the culture of mistrust and blaming of sexual assault survivors.

We need to foster an environment in which men, women and children feel safe telling the truth of what they've been through, as well as one where everyone involved can expect a fair process. The highest ranking police officer in the UK appearing to say those reporting a sex crime will no longer be believed is not going to achieve this.

Images: Rex Features / Thinkstock

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