Sex crimes not being recorded: the police need to believe allegations

18 November 2014

Kate Cook

Kate Cook

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) has today published a damning report on police crime recording. It estimates that, each year, almost a million crimes are missed out of official figures. It points particularly to violent and sex crimes that are not recorded. In this article, Dr Kate Cook (right), Manchester Metropolitan University, looks at the underlying trends in reporting and recording of sexual offences and calls for a new ‘climate of belief’ when allegations of rape are brought to light.

This report’s findings are not new to criminologists or to those engaged in work on sex crime – police crime statistics are a topic for discussion on criminology courses around the country. The police are charged with producing statistics that are used to give indications about the amount of crime in society. Yet each officer is also under pressure to show that they are having an impact on crime, that crime is falling, and that they are detecting the crime that is reported to them and helping to ensure that wrongdoers are punished.

Police services are also under pressure from government to show that crime is under control and government in turn is under political pressure to appear to be responding to crime in a clear manner. None of these factors is likely to lead to a clear and accurate record of the crime that is reported to the police. It is often said that police produced crime statistics tell us more about police work than they do about actual crime.

These issues are, if anything, even starker in the case of sex crimes. Rape and other sexual offences are hugely under-reported crimes and it has long been known that not all instances reported to the police are recorded as crimes. They are often said to be ‘no-crimed’, in other words, to have no action taken and so to be omitted from the official crime statistics. As long ago as 1986 the government were sufficiently aware of this issue so that a Home Office Circular advised police that only false rape reports could be ‘no-crimed’ (Circular 69/1986).

A decade later, Sue Lees drew attention to research showing that police ‘no-criming’ was still a problem (Lees, S. (1996) Carnal Knowledge: Rape on Trial, Hamish Hamilton, p.98.). In her research Lees found that over a third of cases were not recorded as crimes. Today’s news suggests that little has changed in the 18 years since.

It is worth noting that the police recording of crime is only one of the problems in the process of attrition in sexual offences cases. For any incident to result in a conviction the first step is that, after the incident has happened, someone has to decide to draw it to the attention of the police. This can be the victim, a bystander or witness, or the police themselves may witness the incident. It may be true to say that most cases of rape and sexual assault do not occur in front of independent witnesses.

Much of the time then, the decision to report will be made by the victim. Before she can report, a person who has experienced a sexual assault or rape will have to view the incident as wrong, as a crime. Sadly, it is clear that this does not always happen. Girls who are abused by celebrities, children who are touched by a teacher or religious person, and others whose fathers tell them “this is your fault,” are all unlikely to be clear that they have the right to report this to the police. Adults who are victimised can also find this confusing: where the perpetrator is a partner or family member they may be reluctant, afraid or confused. Again, they may not even identify this as a crime.

Assuming that the incident does get reported to the police, then today’s figures suggest that it may well depend on which police force is involved as to whether the case goes ahead. In some force areas around a third of cases are not recorded by the police. See article in Daily Telegraph

After this though, each case has to go through a number of further stages before it can lead to a conviction. The accused person or persons have to be arrested and interviewed, evidence is collected and the case is referred to the Crown Prosecution Service. A number of cases are then dropped, with no further action taken, on the advice of the CPS. Details of these numbers are published yearly by the CPS and the most up to date information shows that less than two-thirds of the rape cases referred to the CPS by the police result in charges being laid. Further cases are then lost through the remainder of the stages within the criminal justice process, at Magistrates’ Court and at Crown Court. Finally, of course, a minority of those who are eventually convicted also have their convictions overturned on appeal.

Academics and campaigners have been writing and researching in this area over the past 30 years and more and have consistently produced evidence of these failures by the criminal justice system. Recent investigations into the crimes of Jimmy Savile show that the problem existed many years earlier.

The joint NSPCC-police report following Operation Yewtree shows that the first time Savile was reported to the police was in the late 1950s. The complainant was not taken seriously and the case did not proceed. Savile died in 2011 and just over a year later the public finally began to understand that he was a prolific sexual abuser, who appears to have committed offences against hundreds of young people. It is tempting to argue that this could not happen again, yet the HMIC report shows that reports of sexual offences are still being dismissed.

A far more recent high-profile case shows the same problem. When Ian Watkins, then lead singer of the group Lost Prophets was first reported to the police in South Wales, they refused to investigate. Watkins is now serving a 29-year sentence having pleaded guilty to a catalogue of child sex offences. It took around four years before an investigation into Watkins’ activities was conducted and the police now acknowledge that more victims are likely to emerge. The case has also been referred to the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

All of this raises questions about children’s safety today and these are echoed by recent scandals involving Rotherham and other areas of England. It is clear that a real and widespread change in approach is needed, if England is to become a place where children are safe from abuse. The police do need to believe and record the allegations of sex crime that are brought to their attention. However the police are not the only problem authority in this issue. Other criminal justice agencies could also do more to take claims of sexual offences more seriously. Survivors of abuse also deserve our respect and support more generally, as they have already had to endure horrific experiences.

News Focus articles are the views of the author and not necessarily those of the Campaign for Social Science.