UK Police considers end to policy of automatic belief of sex abuse complaints
A policy ordering detectives to automatically believe people who claim to have suffered rape or sexual abuse may be dropped, Britain's top police officer has said, as he battles fierce criticism over his force's investigations into high-profile figures.Writing for the Guardian, the Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, says public confidence has been affected by the controversy over Operation Midland's investigation into claims that a VIP paedophile ring abused and murdered children in the 1970s and 1980s.
The Met has been attacked over its inquiries into the former MP Harvey Proctor and former field marshal Lord Bramall, as well as former cabinet minister Lord Brittan. Hogan-Howe points out the policy that 'a victim should always be believed' was advocated by the government-backed police inspectorate in 2014.
Hogan-Howe warns that there would be an 'emotional impact' on victims if the policy of automatic belief were dropped and writes: 'A good investigator would go and test the accuracy of the allegations and the evidence with an open mind, supporting the complainant through the process.
'This is a more neutral way to begin than saying we should believe victims, and I believe it better describes our impartial mindset.'
Earlier on Wednesday, the Met announced an inquiry led by retired high court judge Richard Henriques into the handling of historic allegations of sexual abuse against public figures, and Hogan-Howe says he should consider whether the policy for officers in rape and sexual abuse cases should now be altered.
Operation Midland's investigation into claims of a VIP paedophile ring abusing and even murdering children at the Dolphin Square housing block near Westminster and other sites was prompted by allegations from a complainant known only as 'Nick'. At one point a Met officer described Nick's account as 'credible and true' but the second part of that statement has been withdrawn. No charges have been brought.
Critics say the allegations that saw Lord Bramall investigated were so flimsy as not to warrant criminal investigation and the distress caused. The investigation into the former military chief has been dropped, as was an investigation into Brittan dating back to an alleged rape in 1967, but he was not told before his death.
The Guardian article is part of a fightback by Britain's most senior police officer, keen to see the contract for his £260,000-a-year job extended once his five-year term ends in September. Hogan-Howe gives no hint he will bow to calls to halt Operation Midland imminently, although the police chief does not unequivocally back the actions of his investigators, decisions by senior officers and the force as a whole.
He makes also no apology to Bramall but echoes his force's earlier expression of 'sympathy'.
Following the authorities' failure to prosecute Jimmy Savile, revealed to be a serial abuser of children after his death, Hogan-Howe warns that a change in policy would have an impact on victims, whom he accepts have lacked confidence in the police's willingness to investigate thoroughly.
Hogan-Howe writes: 'Emotionally, though, it may not be enough to give victims confidence in our approach. There's a tension there that's hard to reconcile, so I'd like it to be given due consideration as part of the independent review of how we investigate historical cases, which I announced yesterday.'
The Met accepts Hogan-Howe's questioning of the presumption of belief of victims may be opposed by some involved in policing, as well as groups supporting victims. The commissioner is concerned it creates the public perception police believe any story they are told.
The home secretary, Theresa May, is closely watching developments to see if the crisis abates. The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has urged a one-year extension for the Met commissioner.
In the article Hogan-Howe also repeats a call for a new law banning news organisations from naming suspects in sex abuse cases until they are charged. 'To ensure the suspect is treated fairly, I would only allow police to name a suspect in a sexual assault case after an application to a court, so that a judge can assess the public interest. The media could argue their case if they wished to name someone, as happens in other areas of the law,' he writes.
Acknowledging that prominent figures facing claims may also suffer, Hogan-Howe says: 'Reputations may be tarnished before we have been able to reach a conclusion. This is distressing for them and their families, and is why we expressed our sympathy to Lord Bramall.'
He adds: 'So what I want to do is look forward to see if there is a better way to handle historical investigations involving public figures.'
Hogan-Howe also reveals that the Met believes scores more victims of sexual abuse will come forward, leading to more cases like Brittan's and Bramall's cases where prominent figures face allegations. He adds that despite improvements to police practice 'many more women' who suffer rapes 'still don't come forward'.
The policy of believing victims from the outset, unless evidence undermines their claims, was introduced after police blundered in a series of cases of serious sexual assault. In one case a serial rapist who attacked over 100 women was allowed to remain free because detectives refused to believe a woman's account because they thought it impossible a black cab driver could be a sex attacker.
Met detectives were caught hiding sexual assaults by refusing to count them as crimes and academic research, accepted by police chiefs, concluded only a fraction of sexual assaults were reported to the police because victims feared the trauma of disbelief they would suffer at police hands, on top of the horror of their attack.
He sets out how the police policy has changed, from in 2002 treating allegations as 'truthful'. After that repeatedly failed, Her Majesty's Inspector of Constabulary in 2014 told police to say that it should be presumed that victims be believed.
The fresh police and government focus on the scale of sexual abuse came after the Savile scandal, when it was revealed the entertainer was a prolific offender who had escaped justice. On Savile, Hogan-Howe said: 'The remarkable thing about Savile wasn't the handful of people who had made allegations during his lifetime, it was the hundreds who didn't.'
The commissioner says historic sexual abuse cases are exceptionally difficult: 'Victims of abuse are often damaged by their experience and rarely disclose everything until they begin to trust officers.'
The Henriques review will also inquire into how the Met has handled historic allegations of sexual abuse against public figures. But only part of the inquiry's findings will be published, as the Met says the report will be regarded as 'private' for Hogan-Howe.
Responding to the announcement of an inquiry, Bramall's solicitor Drew Pettifer said: 'Lord Bramall welcomes any review that can assist the police in making improvements in the way they investigate such allegations, thus making the process fairer and less painful for all those concerned.' – The Guardian UK.