March 24, 2021

How many women did John Worboys rape and attack in the back of his cab? We will probably never know. Easily one hundred; more probably several hundred. One victim’s lawyer believes the number could be as many as 400. Thanks to a catalogue of police failures, he was able to get away with it for years.

From as far back as 2002, victims described being attacked in the back of his vehicle. Yet nothing was done until 2007, when he was arrested, questioned, and released without charge. His victim, a 19-year old, has described how the police laughed at her when she told them about her injuries. It was the same story for all those other women who had flagged down Worboys’ cab after a night out assuming they’d be safe in his black cab. Investigating officers generally presumed the women were drunk, incapable and unreliable. The victims were blamed and the cabbie allowed to drive on.

Shocking new light on this cascade of police failures is laid out in Predator: Catching The Black Cab Rapist, a Channel 5 documentary airing tonight. Among other grim revelations, is the recording of a police interview with Worboys following that complaint in 2007. Officers can be heard bantering with the cab driver rather than interrogating him. Laughing and joking with him, they appear to be helping him construct a defence to the woman’s allegations of drug-assisted rape. One even says: “I thought maybe she’s sort of come a bit undone at the front when you was helping her …”

In turn, the victim, during her questioning, was made to feel like she “deserved it”.

It was only the following year, after a pattern was finally noticed amid all these reports, that Worboys was properly interrogated and, at last, charged with several assaults. Then, in March 2009, Worboys was convicted of one count of rape, five sexual assaults, one attempted assault and 12 drugging charges. He had pleaded not guilty, and still shows no remorse for his crimes.

The civil case against the Metropolitan Police brought by two of Worboys victims found that there were “serious operational failures” during the investigation. The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) report into the investigation was a critical opportunity to bring about change in police culture. But all that was recommended in terms of sanctions were “words of warning” for some officers.

It’s an appalling example of poor policing. But you would have thought, wouldn’t you, that 12 years after Worboys was finally convicted, the force might have got their house in order? Sadly, I think that, if anything, things have got worse. The police have a consistently pitiful record when it comes to dealing with violence towards women, and their excessive reaction to the Sarah Everard protests the other weekend does little to dispel the feeling that perhaps they are part of the problem.

Between 2012 and 2018 across England and Wales, almost 1,500 complaints were filed against police officers, special constables and police community support officers (PCSOs) across 33 forces involving accusations of sexual misconduct, including sexual harassment, exploitation of crime victims and child abuse. These officers and special constables, remember, do swear an oath to “cause the peace to be kept and preserved and prevent all offences against people…”

Of these cases, 371 were upheld, resulting in the sacking or resignation of 197 individuals. One case involved a Devon and Cornwall officer, who was sacked following accusations that he attended a victim’s address, stripped off uninvited, and joined her in the shower.

Another is that of Peter Bunyan, a PSCO based in Penzance, who was convicted of three rapes and one count of sexual assault against two victims in 2016 and jailed for 16 years. Bunyan had previously spent time in prison after being convicted of having sex with domestic violence victims and a woman with mental health difficulties while on duty.

In data published in the Observer, figures from the Royal College of Policing’s current “barred list” – officers who have been dismissed from a force and are banned from joining another – show that nearly a fifth of offences inlude abuse of position for sexual purposes, domestic violence or harassment against the public and colleagues. Of the 555 officers barred since the list was introduced in December 2017, more than 1,100 reasons for dismissal are listed of which more than 200 involve sexual, harassment or domestic abuse offences.

Figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act in 2019 show that police officers are seven times more likely than doctors or teachers to be dismissed for sexual misconduct. Now this is, admittedly, a small percentage of the service — but this is only the visible part. Police action lawyers will tell you that vulnerable victims rarely follow through on a complaint against a police officer, and rarer still that such complaints are held up by the courts.

I have interviewed several women over the years who have reported being asked out on dates, or just blatantly for sex, by the police they have called out to a domestic violence or rape complaint. I have also heard far too many stories from women in prostitution about police sexually assaulting them during an arrest, or asking for “sexual favours” in return for letting them go free. And I will never forget observing a rape trial and overhearing the police officers in the case joking outside the court about the “sexual positions” the victim must have enjoyed during the attack. Last week, one young officer shared an internet joke of a similar ilk with his colleagues, as the search for Sarah Everard’s body continued.

Not long after a serving police officer was charged with Sarah’s murder, Oliver Banfield, a probationary police officer based in the West Midlands was given a non-custodial sentence and ordered to pay just £500 compensation having been found guilty of a violent assault on a woman walking home following a night out.

Banfield was seen on CCTV shouting “slag” at Homer as he wrestled her to the ground using police training techniques. Homer, who suffers depression and panic attacks as a result of the attack says it was though Banfield was “fulfilling a violent cop movie fantasy”.

The attack took place in July 2020 but Banfield was allowed to continue to work as a police officer until he was sentenced. Police took eight weeks to follow up on the report about one of their own colleagues and to visit the scene of the crime. It was left to the victim to persevere with her request to have access to the CCTV footage which police had failed to do. As Homer commented after the sentencing, “It was like I had reported a missing cat.”

And, so, public confidence in the police when it comes to sexual and domestic abuse is at an all-time low. Women just don’t trust them. Earlier this month, the Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ) lodged a super-complaint to the Police Inspectorate highlighting systemic failures women are experiencing when reporting domestic abuse perpetrated by police officers. Officers, it is alleged, manipulate the system and act in bad faith.

This tendency is underlined by Nogah Ofer from CWJ, who describes the prevalence of certain behaviours within the Service as springing from a “locker-room culture” in which violence against women is trivialised and loyalty towards fellow officers and concern about impact on their careers are paramount. The Centre has been contacted, for example, by almost 50 women who say they have been seriously betrayed by those tasked with protecting them when they reported domestic abuse and sexual offences committed by police officers and staff. These cases are currently being investigated by the same police force that employs the accused officer.

The rape conviction rate, meanwhile, is stuck at an all time low. It might as well — and I am beginning to sound like a stuck record now — be decriminalised. In an attempt to correct this, in 2018, Met Commissioner Cressida Dick announced that the police had decided to abandon its policy of automatically believing those who report sexual assault.

The “I believe you” policy had been introduced in 2011 in response to low conviction rates. It was a simple way to reassure victims that they would not be automatically accused of lying — something which had been exposed in the 1982 film A complaint of rape. This fly-on-the-wall documentary by Roger Graef film featured a woman with a history of psychiatric illness being bullied and cajoled by a bunch of male officers as she tried to report a rape. They dismissed her story as “the biggest bollocks” they had ever heard. The screening of the film triggered a change in British law and a more sensitive approach to rape cases.

However, three years ago, Dick dismantled that in favour of the “open mind” approach. It was in response to a series of high-profile failed cases, including the Carl Beech fraud. But Dick also said at the time: “If [the allegation] is a long time ago, or it’s very trivial, or I’m not likely to get a criminal justice outcome, I’m not going to spend a lot of resources on it.”

In other words, this pretty much gave police licence to disregard those cases in which a woman may have been previously sexually active with the accused, or had been drinking, or had dared to dress as she wished. Naturally, it had little effect on the conviction rate. It just shifted the blame back on to the victims.

But as a shadow report on rape compiled by a number of leading women’s organisations found last year, to address that extremely low rate, no new laws or policy are necessary, rather police officers need to up their game under the existing framework. It was a lack of training, persistent sexist attitudes from officers, and a failure to hold police accountable which led to those endless blunders in relation to Worboys and similar cases, not the law as it stands. And this still hasn’t been addressed.

Right now, as this shocking documentary airs, it feels like things are getting worse for women. The CWJ is contacted by a constant stream of women who report drug-assisted rapes, which never progress to the “risk averse” CPS. Calls to Refuge during lockdown have been up by an appalling 60%. And now our streets don’t even feel particularly safe, as all those women last weekend were protesting. The police are seen to be very much part of the problem.

Which leaves women in a pretty desperate position. Worboys may be set to spend a while yet in jail but there are many other predatory men out there getting away with it. And unless there is a radical shift in that locker-room culture, and accountability and how women are dealth with, those men will continue to feel as invincible as the black cab rapist

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