The rape victim force to suffer again by the police

Published by The ipaper (6th May, 2019)

Do you think victims of rape should hand their phones over to police? Clearly this is a complex issue following the collapse of high profile cases after digital evidence emerged late in the day that led to innocent men being freed. When I heard the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) was asking women who had suffered rape to sign consent forms permitting access to all their emails, messages and photographs, I found myself struggling to decide if this was a necessary evil or just another trauma for people who had already endured hideous nightmares.

Then I found myself discussing the issue with a friend whom I will call Alice – and she opened up to tell me her personal horror story. It convinced me that far from increasing the power of the state in such cases, there should be further checks on its reach. For this professional woman in her thirties suffered savage assault by a stranger. Yet now, such is the intrusion into her life and incursions on her privacy, she wishes she had not gone to the police.

I will not dwell on the assault, although Alice told me full details. There can be no doubt she did not know the assailant, who was easy to trace. Afterwards, she went to a rape crisis centre and submitted to full medical examination. Experts helped her speak anonymously with a specialist police officer, who was sensitive, sympathetic and could see strong grounds for prosecution. So Alice agreed to give a full statement on the record, followed by harrowing police questioning on video.

Alice had friends who had been attacked and not gone to the police, either because they wanted to bury terrible events or were scared of having their actions or style of dress ripped apart in court. This is one reason the proportion of rapes leading to charges has fallen to a dismal 2 per cent, despite tripling of reported cases over the past decade.

But she was heartened by her initial contacts. ‘The officer was very sweet, even giving me his personal number since I was still shaking. I was very upset but I’d never had interaction with police before and totally trusted them.’

She struggled to process the assault. ‘It was really unpleasant telling my family and it was hard to talk about it with friends since many became embarrassed or upset,’ she said.

Two months later, the CPS – the body now seeking digital strip searches of victims under threat of dropping cases – became involved and ‘it all went south’. Despite already having DNA from Alice and the accused, along with statements and screenshots of texts on the day, police demanded more access to her phone.

Officers said she did not have to agree but if she refused the jury could be told. ‘It was implied I would lose the case,’ said Alice, who went on her own to what she thought was a routine catch-up. The police spent hours downloading hundreds of digital conversations after the rape including texts to her partner, work discussions and dozens of WhatsApp groups.

The CPS claims it needs all possible information to decide whether to charge accused men – who only get digital records examined and phones downloaded at that point. ‘Afterwards, I sobbed for hours,’ she said. ‘Why was the burden of suspicion on me?’

The police took passwords for her Facebook account and mobile phone, permitting them to access all of her emails. One month later, she was at work when an officer called asking her to drop in for another chat. This time, she discovered that in the overwhelming blur of reporting her rape she had signed papers giving full access to her medical records – and now they wanted the name of a therapist she had seen in the past. “You don’t have any choice but to give them what they want, otherwise you will look bad in court.”

So why are raped women singled out for such routine invasion of privacy when, for instance, digital records could be relevant for victims of claimed burglaries involved in insurance fiddles? Either this should apply to all crime victims or none. Instead here is a victim of one of the most appalling crimes imaginable, a woman struggling to regain control over her suddenly shattered life, forced into handing over all her most personal details, documents and information to the state. ‘I have to do this on trust because a strange man attacked me,’ Alice said. ‘Where is the justice in this?’

Good question. You do not need to be an expert in cyber-security to fear dangers of digital data leaking into the public domain. Yet the CPS is pushing to grab more power, which is rightly being resisted by senior police officers and victim support groups. Prosecutors are exploiting headlines over a handful of men dragged through the mud with false accusations.

Yes, these are appalling cases. But there were 916 cases of all crimes dropped in 2017 due to failure to disclose evidence. The far bigger issue remains the thousands and thousands of women too scared to report sexual abuse, savage assaults and the barbarism of rape.

We should always be wary of handing the state additional control over citizens. And we should be cautious about sharing data in the digital age when it can be so easily shared. Just think of Alice, forced to suffer twice. First, when a violent man attacked her. And then when the authorities from whom she sought help insisted she expose every aspect of her life to their gaze. ‘I’ve always believed in the law and justice,’ she said. ‘But what difference does a woman’s background make anyway? Anyone can be a victim of rape. What happened was a brutal, frightening one-off – but this coercion over many months is almost worse.’

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