JENNI MURRAY: It's no wonder women have such little faith in police

JENNI MURRAY: After the scenes at the vigil for Sarah Everard, it’s no wonder we women have such little faith in police

On Saturday I struggled with my conscience. Should I make the journey across London to join a peaceful vigil to express my horror at the murder of Sarah Everard and join hundreds of other women who, like me, have long experience of being harassed in the street and have feared sexual violence?

In the end, I decided it was best to stay safely in my home and join a virtual vigil for Sarah. Like many others across the country, I lit a candle for her and stood with it outside my front door at 9.30pm.

Thank goodness I did. I could hardly believe what I saw in the coverage of what took place at the bandstand on Clapham Common. It’s a part of London I know very well. When my children were young we lived very close to the common. The children played on the bandstand, I walked my dogs there, often at night.

Police detain a woman as people gather at a memorial site in Clapham Common Bandstand, following the kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard

My happy memories of those times will now be for ever tainted by the knowledge that a young woman, ‘just walking home’, was abducted on a main road a short walk away and killed, allegedly by a police officer.

At that same bandstand this weekend, women, moved to tears in their sadness at Sarah’s fate, tried to demonstrate their anger and demand the streets be reclaimed to make us all safe. Scotland Yard’s response to their cries? A horde of policemen stamped on their tea lights and flowers, manhandled them to the ground, knees on their backs, handcuffed and arrested them.

No wonder the women shouted ‘shame on you’ to such heavy-handed treatment by the Metropolitan Police who have claimed they had to act to stop the spread of Covid. Is this what was meant by the UK’s victims’ commissioner Dame Vera Baird QC and the domestic abuse commissioner Nicole Jacobs who just last week wrote to the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, warning of ‘a culture of misogyny in the justice system’?

And yesterday Dame Vera expressed her shock at the police tactics at the vigil, asking: ‘Were they really improving the chances of Covid not spreading by putting their knees in the middle of the back of young women and putting their hands in handcuffs?’

The organisation UN Women recently published a terrifying figure: 97 per cent of women in the United Kingdom have been sexually harassed in the street. In the past week so many of them have told their stories of being touched, followed home, shouted at in the most vulgar terms and raped.

But, as we try to shout back and demand better, the very police we should have trusted to make it safe for women to gather, even during a coronavirus lockdown, come down on us with what looked to me like male violence.

I’ve spoken to so many women who say they’ve suffered sexual violence at home or in the street, who say they don’t go to the police because they think they won’t be listened to. They’re also afraid of being cross-examined if their case comes to court and being made to feel it was all their fault because they’d flirted or worn too short a skirt or, worse, that they had consented to the attack and merely complained out of spite.

Of the ones who do complain, very few ever get to court and, of those that do, conviction rates are pitifully low.

In 2019 to 2020 the police recorded 55,130 rapes, there were 2,102 prosecutions and 1,439 convictions – the lowest level since records began. And then, when there is a conviction, how can it be possible that a man who has been found guilty of ambushing and sexually assaulting a woman who was walking alone at night gets away without a prison sentence?

For that is exactly what happened just last week when the takeaway restaurant worker Javed Miah admitted his offence in Oldham, Greater Manchester, but received a suspended sentence of six months because he was married, had a child and was ‘the sole earner for the family’.

This kind of thing has been going on for years. Cases where men are treated more leniently than women are legion. There was a case in the early nineties of a woman named Sara Thornton who lost her first appeal against a murder conviction for killing her violent and alcoholic husband Malcolm.

Two days later, Joseph McGrail was given a two-year suspended sentence for the manslaughter of his common-law wife by kicking her repeatedly in the stomach and walked free. The judge in his case expressed ‘every sympathy’ for McGrail, adding ‘this lady would have tried the patience of a saint’. That’s misogyny.

More recently, Anthony Williams was given only five years in prison for killing his wife, Ruth. He claimed to have been depressed and worried about Covid and, when she told him to ‘get over it’, he said he’d just flipped and murdered her as she tried to leave the house.

While the police seem to be rather good at silencing women as they gather to mourn the death of Sarah Everard, they have often been not so adept at tracking down men who have struck terror into the hearts of so many of us.

Look at the bungling of the police in Yorkshire when Peter Sutcliffe had murdered 13 women and assaulted seven more before they caught him, almost by accident.

In the early 2000s there was a catalogue of appalling blunders by the police, for which they eventually apologised, when the football coach Kirk Reid was operating in the same area where Sarah died.

His modus operandi was to attack women on their doorstep as they were fumbling for their keys. More than 70 women became his victims over a period of seven years. By 2004 he was the prime suspect, but over and over again the police failed to question him.

Protesters hold signs and shout during a protest criticising the actions of the police at Clapham vigil on Parliament Square

Then, of course, there was the black cab driver, John Worboys, who got away for years with drugging and raping women who thought they could trust him to take them home safely. In 2010 the Independent Police Complaints Commission ruled that Worboys remained free to continue preying on women because police officers made serious mistakes and failed to take victims seriously.

I have been reporting on these kind of cases for 40 years and have occasionally thought things were getting better. But I always remember the old corroboration warning judges used to say to juries in cases of sexual violence.

Before 1994, they warned the jury that it was dangerous to convict on uncorroborated evidence and that women and children had a tendency to lie about sexual matters. It no longer applies, but my suspicion is it’s still a widely held view.

What has impressed me most this week is all the women determined to reclaim their streets and one young man, Chris Hemmings, the author of Be a Man, begging men to take responsibility. He told BBC television that he knows it’s not all men who are dangerously violent, but he wants what he called the ‘brotherhood’ to understand that women should not have to worry about keeping themselves safe. It’s men’s problem to solve, he said, because they are the culprits. Let’s hope they’re listening.

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