Nearly three-fifths of investigations by the Metropolitan Police into indecent exposure and voyeurism towards women over the last five years failed to identify a suspect. The figures were made available by the Met following a request made under the Freedom of Information Act by the Justice Gap and can be viewed here.
It was revealed that 4,014 out of a total 6,830 exposure offences, involving a perpetrator who exposed their genitals with the intention of being seen by and causing distress to another person, were closed without the identification of a suspect. Only about one in 10 cases (11%) recorded over the five-year period (739 in total) resulted in criminal charges or summons being brought against a suspect.
The data reveals that evidential difficulties arose in almost one third of recorded offences (28%) reported by women which were said to prevent further police action. Of these 1,903 recorded offences, four out of 10 of cases involved situations where evidential difficulties prevented further investigation despite both the identification of a suspect and support from victims.
‘The Government’s record on sexual violence is appalling, letting too many offenders escape without punishment and too many victims without justice,’ commented Shadow Minister for Policing and the Fire Service Sarah Jones MP. ‘We must do more to protect women and girls from indecent exposure.’ Jones said that Labour had called on the government to review the law around flashing (‘but the Government has failed to take action’) and outlined a package of measures in its Ending Violence Against Women and Girls green paper.
Andrea Simon, director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, called the lack of police action ‘alarming’. ‘There has been no real attempt by the Met to pursue offenders who commit so called “lower level” sexual offending, when we know they are often a precursor to more serious crimes against women,’ she said. ‘Perpetrators don’t go out and kill without any prior indication that they are a danger to women and girls; this was the case with Sarah Everard’s murderer and similarly the killer of Libby Squires, who was known to have indecently exposed himself in a pattern of abuse which escalated to murder.’
‘Despite the significant volume of complaints, the police response is appalling,’ the barrister Dr. Charlotte Proudman told the Justice Gap. Proudman is a legal adviser to Our Streets Now, a campaign aimed at empowering women subjected to harassment in public spaces. ‘I question whether the police are properly investigating such abuse. The government has committed to tackling VAWG but so far, it has failed to make concrete proposals and to change the law.’
According to Andrea Simon, ‘lower level’ public sexual offences have now become normalized. ‘Violence against women and girls exists on a spectrum that includes sexual violence and femicide as well as the harms that are so commonplace, they’re often not recognised as violence – street harassment, groping, flashing,’ she said. ‘Such incidents are commonly experienced by most women across their lifetimes and are often trivialised, dismissed or laughed about, but are inherently harmful to women and girls and not just an indicator of further threat’. Simon argued that this was part of ‘a wider context of systemic failures by our criminal justice agencies to respond to all forms of violence against women’ including rape where ‘just 0.6% of reports are charged and domestic abuse where three in four reports have no further action taken’.
A cross-party parliamentary report published earlier this year revealed more than seven out of 10 women have experienced some form of sexual harassment in a public space (71%) and 86% of 18-24-year-olds. One of the main reasons cited for not reporting incidents was: ‘I didn’t think reporting it would help’ (45%). The report by the all-party parliamentary group on UN women identified strategies to tackle the ‘widespread under-reporting of incidents of sexual harassment’, such as increasing public trust in the justice system to ensure that women believe reporting incidents of sexual harassment will be taken seriously; strengthening the reporting processes; as well as shifting attitudes towards sexual harassment so that people who report these incidents aren’t viewed as victims.
The new figures released by the Met to the Justice Gap highlight increases in the number of incidents of exposure involving female victims. In 2016 there were 1,380 offences recorded by the Met and1577 by 2020, an increase of over 22%.
Priorities and reassurances
‘Tackling violence remains our top operational priority, including crimes that disproportionately affect women and girls, such as domestic abuse and sexual violence’, reiterated the Met Commissioner Cressida Dick in the foreword of the police force’s Action Plan to tackle violence against women and girls (VAWG) published in October. Framed as a concerted effort to ‘reassure women and girls in public spaces and protect them from victimisation’, and to improve public confidence in the policing of sexual and gender-based offences, the Action Plan pledged to elevate the visibility of Met police officers in public spaces by introducing new patrol plans in Basic Command Units that have a VAWG ‘problem profile’.
Many believe that a rhetoric of priorities and reassurances does little to tackle what Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services referred to as ‘an epidemic of violence and abusive offending against women and girls’ in its September 2021 inspection of VAWG policing. Back in November, a nationwide survey commissioned by the End Violence Against Women Coalition found that over 47% of women reported declining trust in police since details of investigative failures emerged in relation to the murders of Sarah Everard, and of Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman.
Andrea Simon, who oversaw the End Violence Against Women survey, believes that social research could serve as a key tool in facilitating a long-term assessment of how failures to investigate exposure and voyeurism contribute to patterns of offending behaviour, and to gaps in the reporting of other forms of VAWG. ‘The ways in which perpetrators behave needs independent research so we can better understand how police and wider society’s response (or lack of response) to these so called ‘lower level’ offences contributes to a sense of impunity in perpetrators’, said Simon.
In Simon’s view, reforms to VAWG policing from within police services across the UK could also serve as a positive step in tackling unconscious biases and stereotypes associated with the investigation of sexual offences. ‘We are often fed the line that women are reluctant to support investigations and drop out of the system, when in reality the system works against victims and is incapable of delivering an acceptable level of service to women who come forward’, argues Simon. ‘It needs transformation, starting with a radical overhaul of internal cultures in our police forces and a greater focus on providing specialist officers, training and resourcing that is proportionate to the scale of violence against women and girls’.
A rule of law?
As previously reported by The Justice Gap, the Law Commission, the government’s law reform body, has just recommended the exclusion of ‘sex or gender’ from the protected characteristics listed under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, and section 66 of the Sentencing Act 2020, due to the risk of creating ‘hierarchies of victims’. A joint public response from nearly twenty leading women’s rights and hate crime organisations, including the Fawcett Society, Stonewall and Citizens UK, criticized the Law Commission’s ‘u-turn on making misogyny a hate crime’, arguing that their review ‘failed to recognise the value of including misogyny to enable recording of incidents which are currently invisible’.
Responding to the recommendations of several parties who participated in their initial consultation on hate crime legislation, the commission argued that ‘more targeted options outside the hate crime framework – such as the possible offence of public sexual harassment – should be considered to address some of the specific concerns that have driven calls for misogyny to be included within hate crime laws’.
Dr. Proudman, who drafted a law with Dexter Dias QC to make public sexual harassment an offence, believes that a lack of clarity surrounding the criminality of such acts contributes to barriers in their investigation and prosecution. ‘At the moment, it is not clear that this behaviour is a crime. The government’s failure to make misogyny a hate crime shows that VAWG is not a priority’. For Proudman, the ‘issue of tackling women’s safety’ ultimately requires fundamental, cross-systemic reform ‘at a policing level, amongst the CPS, at trials and in government’.
‘In light of what we are learning about how indecent exposure can be an indicator of more serious offending – Wayne Couzens being an extreme but far from unique example – there needs to be a step up in efforts to encourage more reporting’, commented Harriet Wistrich, director of the Centre for Women’s Justice. ‘The new offence proposed may help – but confidence in policing is critical’.
Yet for many civil liberties campaigners, the idea of a new offence for public sexual harassment inevitably raises questions about the law’s effective implementation and its disproportionate application. ‘We understand why there have been calls for street harassment to be made an offence, on the basis that it would be a symbolic rejection of the ways in which men treat women and cause fear and distress by catcalling, following, insulting and threatening us’, said Simon.
‘However, there are important concerns and reservations about whether it will make any meaningful change for women who experience this daily. This approach is likely to result in disproportionate criminalisation of specific groups – for example, already overpoliced Black and minoritized communities.’
‘It may also distract from a more pressing need for prioritising prevention work’, elaborated Simon. ‘This would help to stop street harassment from happening in the first place. ‘Criminalisation alone is an ineffective deterrent of violence against women and girls. A far more effective response would be wholesale investment in work with young people, particularly boys, around their attitudes and treatment of women and girls.’