Two years ago I sat down with residents in my local ward with our local police teams and we thrashed out what we thought the policing priorities for the area should be. The meeting descended into a heated debate about whether dog dirt should be a higher priority than graffiti. We eventually settled on dog dirt, unruly kids on buses and graffiti. The police sergeant congratulated us on a good meeting. We left feeling happy that we had done our civic duty.
While we were being engaged citizens, several hundred yards down the road a young woman was travelling home on the 155 bus from Clapham to Tooting in South London. A man followed her home from the bus stop and seriously sexually assaulted her on her own doorstep.
When she reported the incident the police officers were not surprised. They knew that there was a serial rapist working the 155 bus route in Clapham, Balham and Tooting. They had linked him to dozens of sex attacks and rapes but had yet to catch him.
But the woman who was attacked had no idea that she was walking home alone in a rapist’s hunting ground. Had she known, she might have taken a taxi home, left a little earlier or asked a friend to meet her. But the police had told no one. Over the next few months at least nine more women went to their local police station to report a sexual attack. DNA told the police that it was the same man. But still they told no one.
Eventually, the police caught their man. He was Kirk Reid. He was eventually convicted of 2 rapes and 26 sexual assaults. So far he has been linked to 71 attacks on women in the Wandsworth area. The total is probably much higher because so few victims come forward. He was given a life sentence – although with a minimum of a paltry seven and a half years in prison.
Women were being raped and the police were working with local people on so-called “safer neighbourhood panels” to write dog dirt prevention strategies. Any reasoned observer might have thought that the way to make the neighbourhood safer would have been to discuss the serial sex attacker in the area. Teenagers and the elderly were being sexually assaulted and the so called “neighbourhood watch” were not watching out for the neighbourhood rapist. Rather, they were talking about new locks for their front doors – it’s not a lot of use fumbling for the key to the new door lock when the attacker is right behind you. Not even the local Council were informed. In short, unless you had a police warrant card you would have had no way of knowing that a man like Kirk Reid was roaming the local streets.
Most upsetting of all was the fact that women were being deprived of the opportunity to take extra safety precautions. Anna, who was attacked after police knew that they had a serial sex attacker told me:
“I wish they had warned the community in 2002. It might have prevented me walking home alone and encouraged more people to come forward. It’s a no brainer. I can’t believe they didn’t do it.”
Overseas, the police agree with Anna. In the US, Australia and Canada police routinely issue local alerts for women when there is a serial rapist in the area. They find it reduces attacks by warning potential victims; it reduces attacks by scaring the offender; it enlists the whole community in the task of bringing the individual to justice; and it encourages more victims to come forward thereby helping the police to build up their evidence pool.
Harriet Harman argued at Prime Minister’s Question time last week that if men being charged were given anonymity then it would discourage women from coming forward. She seems to have missed the point. The critical time for women to come forward is when police are trying to catch sex attackers in the first place. That is when there is an urgent need for information. In addition, the veil of secrecy which the police pull over their investigations is contrary to the international norms that see police have a duty to warn people if there is a serial rapist or sex attacker in their area. Harriet Harman seems to have no problem with the veil of secrecy which the police currently pull over rape enquiries – despite evidence that more openness would prevent crimes and encourage more people to come forward to report crimes.
Such warnings would not merely help women, they would help anyone who is the victim of a sexual assault. When I was 12 I was indecently assaulted by a man at a train station who then tried, and failed, to kidnap me. However, when my mother took me to police they were not in the least surprised. It was clear that they knew that there was just such a man on the loose, hunting down boys in the area. However, they had not told any parents or any schools. We spent hours doing a photofit. I expected to see this image at stations in the area to at least make the public more vigilant. However, no photofit appeared. Not even the local schools were told that there was someone in the area. No doubt that photofit remains in a filing cupboard rather than having helped to serve as a warning to other parents in the area.
In Britain we should adopt the same alert system that is used by most other English speaking countries. The police should have a duty to warn people if they know that there is a sex attacker prowling the area. They would also find that enlisting the support of the public may help to catch the attacker sooner. The authorities in Britain could do a lot worse than to look at Canada where a victim successfully sued the police for negligence after she was attacked by a sex attacker whom the police had not warned people about. The judge said that not alerting women to the presence of a serial sex attacker in an area, while searching for him, was tantamount to using women “as bait to attract a predator.” Let’s stop using women and children as “bait” in Britain.