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Policing needs a ‘180-degree culture change’ to lead the fight against VAWG | Speech to APCC & NPCC Joint Partnership Summit 2021

Dame Vera Baird stands at a podium speaking to police

To mark the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, we publish the full transcript of the Victims' Commissioner's speech to police earlier this year, where Dame Vera Baird urged policing to lead the way on much-needed cultural change.

Dame Vera addressed the joint National Police Chief’s Council and Association of Police and Crime Commissioners Partnership Summit on 18 November 2021. The Victims’ Commissioner used her speech to shine the spotlight on trust and confidence in policing, particularly in relation to violence against women and girls. A transcript of her speech follows below – with thanks to Policing Insight. 

The very day Sabina Nessa was killed in a park in south London, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary produced an inspection report – commissioned when Sarah Everard was killed – into how the police deal with violence against women and girls.

It described an epidemic of violence and abusive offending against women and girls. It described 50% of women feeling unsafe in public spaces, and two-thirds of women between the ages of 16 and 34 having been harassed on the street by men. The figures for flashing are epic.

So, women stay at home where it’s safe – but 1.6 million a year suffer from domestic abuse, 96% of it by men, and two women a week are killed in that way. Are we living in a civilised and well-policed country?

A fraction of domestic violence cases which occur are reported, and three-quarters of all reports of domestic abuse are binned, NFA’d, sent away – look at the GMP report to see the various methods used by the police – long before they get to a charging stage.

Why isn’t VAWG tackled properly?

In 2019/20, 57,000 rapes were reported to police – again, it’s a fraction of those that occur. Since cases take longer than a year from report to court, the outcomes aren’t the same cases, but there have been more than 55,000 reported rapes a year since 2017, so this year’s convictions come from roughly the same number of reports.

In 2019/20, there were 1,109 convictions of rape – the lowest in history. The CPS led that collapse, of course, with a decision that caused charging to fall from 3,800 to 1,700 in two years, with police following suit, and referrals dropping from 4,600 to 3,000 in the same two years.

I dwell on rape because of the 180,000 mostly women survivors who responded to the Government’s VAWG strategy consultation, many said: “Why would we report street harassment? They don’t even prosecute rape.”

The inspectors asked the four forces they chose as typical to find the 10 most dangerous men to women, so they did; 34 of the 40 had never been identified as a risk to women before, so no protection of women seemed to be in evidence – no management via MATAC or MAPPA or IOM – nor dealt with as target criminals, or as terrorist suspects are.

Three-quarters of the men in those forces who broke court orders in place to protect women saw no action whatsoever, even though breach is often a crime itself, but is certainly another episode of some kind of abuse.

The inspectors drew on 30 other reports linked to VAWG to sustain this conclusion. Zoe Billingham, the lead, had been reporting on domestic abuse for a decade.

They conclude after all this work that VAWG has no focus for the police, it has no status in the police force, it has no central direction, no central resourcing, but it does kill a woman every three days – far more than are killed in terrorism, for instance, dealt with by policing very differently and no doubt saving many lives as a consequence of that different dealing.

So 1.6 million DA victims a year, three-quarters of which the reports are dropped like a hot brick by the police; 60,000 reported rapes a year, of which 1.5% are prosecuted; 13 special reports; a decade of critical inspections of domestic abuse, criticising, analysing, recommending.

It’s time for me to ask, as Victims’ Commissioner, why don’t the police tackle violence against women and girls properly? And I thought, framing that, should the question be why won’t the police tackle violence against women and girls properly?

Stop blaming women

For 30 years, my generation has been calling on the police to act, and there was a generation before us. Here we are at the policing summit in this appalling year, where [End Violence Against Women’s] figures show what the public think; what more do women’s voices have to do to get police to take violence against women and girls more seriously?

A very serious and senior woman officer said to me recently, “If there’s a burglary, the police run. If it’s domestic abuse, they’re not in such a hurry.” Tell me, why don’t you run?

I want to say three quick things. No woman will have faith back in the police until you root out your own people who are doing wrong. That guy who abducted, terrified, raped and murdered Sarah Everard was flashing a few weeks before, was known affectionately as rapist to his pals, but nobody did much about it.

When there are reports in policing of domestic violence by an officer, the force puts him on light duties because they worry that his marriage might be breaking down; that’s great as an employer, but not very comforting to the partner that her complaint against him beating her up gives him easier work and time off at home.

And no prosecutions. I mean, really, just no prosecutions. It seems like somewhere between bonding and belonging either makes police protective of each other, or just unable to believe a complaint against fellow officer.

You have to send those cases to another force – it’s very simple. And look, that ‘I don’t believe our PC Smith would behave like that’ attitude that is around makes me say very strongly: “Stop blaming women for the crimes done against them.”

Project Soteria in Avon and Somerset – who had the courage to bring academics in to do a deep dive – found that they didn’t have a rape investigation squad, they have a complainant credibility investigation squad.

Just to show it isn’t just Avon and Somerset, the HMCPSI/HMICFRS report done last year spoke of many rape complainants who’d had their entire personal phones and devices downloaded and searched, their medical records inspected from birth, school reports, social services documents sieved through for material that might undermine their credibility, and the man against whom the rape was alleged had never even been approached.

There was more than one case in which the man admitted rape to the victim on WhatsApp, but the police didn’t get beyond the credibility of the complainant.

Cultural change

And you can change your culture. I understand that mutual support and reliance on each other requires a sense of team belonging and bonding, that you are hierarchical and disciplined, and you are overwhelmingly still male.

Great that there are more women police, good that there are more BME police but, as a senior officer said to me the other day, they are fully accepted as long as they behave like white men.

Males who don’t discourage cheap, misogynistic remarks, sexual comments, talking of women like objects whose predominant point is their sexuality and not their humanity.

People who don’t discourage men from that behaviour encourage dangerous men to think that they have the full support of their gender to exercise their male entitlement over these female objects, as and how they wish.

I launched at Exeter Football Club last year, a bystander project. They have football at all levels there, and we trained volunteers to sensitise them to that kind of misogynistic remark and, when spoken, they simply say: “That’s not appropriate and you should stop.”

To their surprise, in an entirely male locker room atmosphere, the majority of men present did not respond positively to the misogynistic remark; they responded positively to the intervention from the bystander. Statistics show that consistently. So it isn’t a right assumption that there is something unchangeable and natural in this lads’ stuff, and a culture can be changed.

Consider drink-driving. When I was young, if police caught someone for drink-driving, the question was, “Why aren’t they out looking for criminals?” Now I think people would take the keys off someone who they saw about to drive when they were drunk because it’s dangerous and it kills, rather like violence against women and girls does. That required change in national culture over years. Smoking’s another example.

But you don’t have to change national culture. That sort of mutual support and bonding that I just described is very useful here. You are part of the outside world of course, but officers are hierarchical, disciplined camaraderie, as I’ve called it, so you have a captive cohort of natural social leaders, as police are, and you can change the culture and the force.

I hope to see police as modern men, proudly leading the fight against sexist culture, speaking out like the bystander project volunteers.

So, two quick questions – don’t answer me, but ask yourselves. After 30 reports and 30 years of women’s voices roused against violence against women and girls, why are you still not policing it properly? It may be because you’re blaming the victims of it, for crimes committed against them, through some undertone of sexism either born or encouraged by the essentially male brotherhood culture in policing.

Does being a police officer make you a worse sexist than the ordinary man in the street? And if so, don’t you owe it to the public to see that, and to change culturally around by 180 degrees and start to lead us out of this epidemic of violence against women and girls?

  • Dame Vera was interviewed by Policing Insight, in which the Victims’ Commissioner expanded on the concerns laid out in her speech, and suggested steps towards restoring confidence among victims.
  • Dame Vera gave a brief video interview to the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners immediately following her speech.