Over the past few weeks, since the tragic death of Sarah Everard, there has been a welcome, but very unusual, political focus on violence against women and girls, greater than I can remember at any time since I came to this country in 1972.
It seems to be a moment with real potential for change, a little like the period of sustained political and public outcry that followed the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence and the subsequent botched investigation by the Metropolitan Police. It is officers from the Metropolitan Police who are once again in the frame, one charged with the abduction and murder of Sarah , another with sending an inappropriate tweet from the scene where her body lay, many more with responding insensitively or violently to the subsequernt vigil and still others for dismissing a complaint of indecent exposure from a woman leaving that vigil.
Once again, the public and politicians appear to be ahead of the police, who seem to struggle to understand the level and significance of public outrage in the face of their failure to protect women and girls. In the light of that, I read with interest an old blog post of mine. It was dated November 4th 2017, but could have been written last week or twenty years ago, so little has changed. I called it “Throwing Women to the Wolves – Assurances about Violence Against Women Count for Little” and it read as follows:
”The last Friday of October 2017 was a grim day for news. National newspapers were dominated by reports of harassment and misogyny in Parliament, while that day’s Argus brought a report that a woman had been stabbed to death at her home. We now know she was 46 year old Jillian Howell, a Payroll Manager for Brighton University, who was also a volunteer for the Samaritans and a popular and devoted Albion fan. A man has been charged with her murder.
Superintendent Ed De La Rue of Sussex Police pointed out, as the police so often do when women are killed, that the “man and woman were known to each other” adding that it was “obviously very tragic and a very upsetting incident for the community ”. He reassured the public that the police “aren’t looking for anyone else” and reminded us “Brighton is a safe place”.“Unfortunately” he said, complacently, “these tragic incidents do, from time to time occur.”.
It was the sort of statement we’ve come to expect from police officers reporting on the deaths of women by known male assailants. The indication is that such events are to be expected and, though sad and regrettable, pose no risk to the general public. Except of course, that male violence does pose a particular risk to the half of the public who are female.
Supt De La Rue ignored the fact that of recent years there has been a huge increase in violence against women in the city. In 2015-16 in Brighton and Hove more than 4,500 incidents of domestic violence were reported to the Police, up almost 5 per cent on the previous year. In the same period, 667 sexual offences were recorded and 37 cases of stalking. A 2016 report to the city’s council revealed that in the 5 years from 2011-12 to 2015-16 there was a 107 per cent rise in the number of recorded offences of sexual violence, while domestic violence went up by 35 per cent. Bad as these figures were, the report reminded councillors that they were likely to be “an underestimate, since substantial numbers of people do not disclose such violence..”. Health services also recorded 23 patients who had suffered female genital mutilation.
No doubt police would say, as they always do, that the increase is due to ‘better recording’ and their own ‘improved response’. Except that they have been saying this for 3 decades and the real indicator of an improved response would be a reduction in incidents, levels of injury and crucially homicide. There are no signs of reduction. Moreover, Sussex Police have been severely criticised for their poor response to some female homicides, not least the tragic killing of Shana Grice following repeated reports of stalking by her ex-boyfriend.
The same day that reports of Jillian Howell’s death were published, another city newspaper printed an interview with ‘Lorraine’ from St Leonards. She described 10 years of terrifying stalking by Sherzad Salih, a total stranger. She had repeatedly reported incidents to Sussex Police, but action was only taken when she herself gathered evidence from a dash cam she had installed. Sherzad Salih has now been jailed for 4 years. However, even when he was on bail awaiting trial, she was not protected. He continued to stalk her, at one point even following her daughter. She believes he will stalk her again.
That Friday’s grim news ended with reports of the conviction of Dr Gautam Ray, a Sussex A & E specialist, for possession of ‘extreme pornography’. Headlines focussed on the fact he had viewed images of bestiality. Undoubtedly, these were deeply degrading to the women portrayed, but far worse were images of injured women, shown with whip marks and nails driven into their flesh, one with her breast nailed to a piece of wood and another tied to a table with bolt-cutters attached to her genitals. Ray, who used to work for Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust, was given a 6 month suspended prison sentence and allowed to walk free from court. Depressingly, anonymous comments on the Argus website minimised the offence, treated the issue as a joke or suggested the women “enjoyed it”.
So Supt De La Rue, you’ll forgive me if I treat your reassurances with scepticism. I do not feel safe in the city. I have little confidence that the police will protect me or other women. I may be unduly cynical, but what I see is a police service that enthusiastically attends fashionable meetings and marches, talks up diversity and ostentatiously condemns hate crime against other groups – but turns its back on women and throws female victims to the wolves.”