By Ellen Finch
I don’t pretend to know a lot about law, about the reporting system, or about the inner workings of the police force. But when I read in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago that the policy of presumption of belief was being challenged, I couldn’t help but be angry.
In the training I’ve had and the talks I’ve attended since becoming part of It Happens Here, one of the most important things people stress is that you should always believe victims of sexual abuse. Because so much abuse gets swept under the carpet, and because ours is a culture of victim blaming and willful ignorance, it is so important to show that you believe what somebody tells you. That act of showing belief could be the catalyst to a victim building the confidence to report their assault, if they wish to, or to seek help. And even if the ‘presumption of belief’ policy is not as strong or as coherent a policy as we might hope it to be (see this link for a better explanation), it is a positive start to a journey towards a more respectful treatment of victims of sexual violence in such professions.
So when I read about Metropolitan police officer Sir Hogan-Howe’s claim in the newspaper, I was initially shocked. The idea went against everything I had been taught since I first started learning about sexual violence. Then I started thinking about the possible thought processes behind the suggestion. Wondering whether this had stemmed from false rape and abuse accusations, I started looking into figures.
I already knew that a very, very small proportion of rape accusations are false. A 2005 Home Office survey claimed that the percentage is 3%, and the numbers don’t appear to have changed much since then. Some sources believe that the number is somewhere closer to 2%. I considered the logic of basing a policy on such a small number, in comparison to the number of potential claimants who might be deterred by a change in policy. To me, the logic just wasn’t there.
Looking further into Home Office reports, I decided to see how many reports went on police record, looking in particular at rape claims. A 2013 Home Office study estimated a three-year average somewhere between 60,000 and 95,000 of people who experience rape every year. Somewhere between 16% and 26% of those estimated rapes end up on police records, or 15,670. Such a low number made me wonder why so few of these crimes were being reported. The report cited that a popular reason was that many victims ‘didn’t think the police could do much to help’. That got me thinking. If you’re already unsure of what the police could do to help you in such a situation, would it make things worse to know that the presumption of belief they once held as policy was to be lifted? Is this more or less likely to make potential victims report the crimes? Is this the kind of culture we want to create within the reporting system, in reaction to the very small number of cases that turn out to be false?
Of course, I understand that there are a minority of people who falsely accuse, and that the result of that causes a great deal of pain for many people involved in the process. The fact that this minority receives so much attention from the media, however, means that there is a risk of skewing our policies in their favour. I also fully understand that people want more than just to be believed. Full investigations conducted rigorously and with care are incredibly important not just in a legal sense, but in showing a complainant that their accusation is being taken seriously. However, the presumption of belief is a critical starting point for a culture that legitimises victims rather than silencing them.
I hope that by using statistics, I don’t come across like I’m reducing the topic to numbers. I have experienced the process of deciding whether or not to report rape, and that’s one of the reasons I was so interested in the topic. It just didn’t make sense to me to risk discouraging people from reporting sexual violence by removing the presumption of truth policy for the less than 5% minority of people who falsely accuse. It would be really interesting, for the sake of my own personal curiosity more than anything else, to hear other people’s thoughts on this: it’s a sensitive topic with scope for a myriad of opinions, and I did hope that Hogan-Howe’s suggestion would raise more voices, initiate more discussion, than it has. For me, I can only hope that the policy is not reversed, because for the short time it has been in place it has given me a glimmer of hope that the police force and the judicial system were finally starting to align with what I believe are really important principles in the discussion of sexual violence.