Exhausted officers, the tactics of Extinction Rebellion and grave shortcomings in the criminal justice systems’ treatment of alleged rape victims were among issues discussed at yesterday’s meeting of the London Assembly’s police and crime committee, whose guests included London’s Victims Commissioner Claire Waxman, Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime Sophie Linden and Metropolitan Police Deputy Commissioner Sir Stephen House.
Labour committee chair Unmesh Desai opened the session by revealing that the rate of referrals of rape cases to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) by the police has fallen by 40% since 2016/17, along with an even larger drop in the proportion of cases prosecuted and a 50% reduction in convictions during the same period.
The committee heard that reasons for these deteriorations were various, including the amount of police time taken up by gathering evidence from mobile phones and other sources. Waxman explained that “requests for mobile phone data and third party material” by the Met can take months to be answered, which delay investigations including “because they’re not getting the medical records or social services records.”
House, stressing that “most rape investigations are not about stranger attacks” with “the vast majority” taking place within ongoing relationships between people, said that a sometimes lengthy “digital history between the two individuals” has to be examined and that there have been issues about acceptable parameters for this. Such “growing mountains of data” have contributed to 32% of cases the Met is investigating being “more than one year old,” he said.
Labour AM Jennette Arnold related the distress of a woman she has been supporting, describing her as being “left in limbo for over two-and-a-half years” while awaiting her day in court, and Waxman described a case that had already been subjected to a wait of the same length, pre-Covid, and which was recently pulled from the court schedule during the week before it was finally due to take place. It will not now happen before next June, meaning “close to four years” will have elapsed between the time the offence was reported and the case coming to court.
Linden said that Covid has exacerbated delays that already existed and that the issue of “resources across the system” cannot be overlooked, including for victim support. “One of my concerns is that the huge backlog in court cases we’ve got at the moment is not going to be properly addressed unless there is an injection of capacity, will and resources,” she said.
House expressed “dismay and a bit of horror and a bit of shame” at the situation, which he assured the committee the Met is seeking to correct, including by working more closely with the CPS. He welcomed a “whole system review” getting underway to improve “what is not at the moment an acceptable performance as far as the victims of rape are concerned”. He also welcomed the additional officers being provided by the government and the Mayor, who are now beginning to be added to Met staff ranks.
Waxman ascribed blame for the increase in the backlog of cases to Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service for failing so far to equip court rooms with Perspex screens in order to make them Covid-secure. She also referred the committee to the London Rape Review, research conducted by the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime and University of West London and published last year, which explored the “number of interrelated reasons” why so few rape cases result in convictions. Waxman said that some improvements are starting to happen and that national government is “looking at London as best practice”.
In the section of the meeting about street protests, House said there have been nearly 700 arrest of Extinction Rebellion activists, though many fewer have been demonstrating unlawfully compared with the previous period of concerted action by the movement. “Some organisers do engage with us very, very well,” House said, welcoming the opportunity this has provided to explain the legislation governing the conduct of protests. Problems arise “when organisers won’t engage, or we can’t identify the organisers, or they engage but refuse to accept that there is legislation by which we are all bound”.
House said that the preponderance of protests in the capital in recent months has made “tiredness of our officers” a “major issue” for the Met, with rest days foregone and high pressure situations being faced in what he characterised as a “slightly more heated and frenetic time”. He expressed pride in officers’ “restraint in many very, very difficult circumstances”, and mentioned abuse being hurled at black and Asian officers, which he has highlighted in relation to Black Lives Matter events at a previouls police and crime committee appearance.
Policing protests also meant less time for other areas of responsibility: “Every officer who is deployed on a demonstration is an officer who is not in the community, who is not dealing with violent crime or allegations of serious crime. It is a stretch.” House said workforce absences have been lower than some predictions, but is mindful that these rates could increase as more Covid testing takes place , which could require more police staff to self-isolate.
Extinction Rebellion protests, though often unlawful, have seen “few injuries to officers” than others, House said. He expressed annoyance, though, with participants’ tactic of letting their bodies go limp when officers seek to physically move them. “We have asked them to stop being floppy. It might seem like a silly thing to say, but when we arrest them and pick them up they go all floppy, which is why you see four or five officers carrying them away. It’s a complete waste of officers’ time and a complete pain in the neck. If they could just behave like sensible adults – you’ve made your point, you wanted to be arrested, you’ve been arrested, [now] get up and walk away with one officer and stop wasting police time. They will not do it and it is a flipping nuisance.”
House expressed hope that parts of the Public Order Act can “be fixed” following a court defeat last November over how the Met had interpreted some of its powers. He said the Met is also asking the government to “consider current legislation on public nuisance to see if that can be strengthened in some way” to create new grounds for intervening in protests.
During the section of the meeting about antisocial behaviour, Desai asked House if he thought the Met should have investigated four reported sightings of Boris Johnson’s adviser Dominic Cummings in Durham on 19 April. Cummings visited nearby Barnard Castle on 12 April, which Durham Police concluded “might have been a minor breach of the regulations that would have warranted police intervention”.
Desai suggested that criticism of Durham Police over their dealing with the matter meant the Met might be a more appropriate service to investigate the claims of other sightings, partly because Cummings had previously travelled to Durham from London. However, House replied, “As you know, as a matter of course, the Met is not investigating Covid breaches retrospectively” and referring to the earlier discussions about stretched Met resources.
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