A shaking of belief: victims and impartial investigation

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Related Theme: Sexual assault

A shaking of belief: victims and impartial investigation

Detective Superintendent Kenny McDonald, the officer in charge of Operation Midland, the Metropolitan Police investigation into historical allegations of murder by a Westminster paedophile ring, has unwittingly found himself at the epicentre of epistemological tremor in policing.

Having told the BBC that he thought the account given by Nick’ a man who claims he and others were abused by establishment figures in the 1970s and 80s – were ‘credible and true’, McDonald has faced angry protests from those implicated and has been rebuked by his Scotland Yard superiors for creating the impression that the police were ‘pre-empting the outcome of the investigation’. In response to the controversy, Alison Saunders, Director of Public Prosecutions and head of the CPS, has found it necessary to reassure us that, ‘it is absolutely our job and the police’s job to investigate it [an allegation] and to decide whether there is sufficient evidence to put before a court. You don’t just take somebody’s word as it is’(my italics).

There is much more than a detective’s linguistic slip at the root of this affair. One great tectonic principle of British criminal justice the careful and even-handed, collection and weighing of evidence – is grinding against a brave new continent on which rests the progressive’ principle of automatic victim belief.

This new plate was formed from the debris of innumerable police failures. Time and again, particularly in relation to rape and sexual abuse, the police have been shown to have ignored, disbelieved, under-recorded and neglected their duty to victims who came forward to report what happened to them. Calls for reform have rightly been loud and urgent. HMIC Sir Tom Winsor has said that when recording crime ‘The police need to institutionalise a culture of believing the victim. Every time’, and a presumption of belief is written into National Crime Recording Standards, unless there is ‘credible evidence to the contrary’.

It would be a mistake to see this just as bureaucratic guidance about crime recording; if it were, officers would not need to be instructed to believe’, just to write down what they are told. Rather the presumption of belief is intended to ensure that victims are treated correctly; that their safety and well-being is addressed, their right to seek justice upheld, that information that could protect the public is gained and so that others will also have the confidence to come forward. It has been suggested that this position was crucial for encouraging victims of Jimmy Savile to speak out.

So, in relation to crime recording, victim care and building public confidence officers are told that you do just take somebody’s word for it and with this paradox continents begin to shudder.

Can this duality be maintained? Can the police, institutionally or individually, be asked to adopt one belief position while carrying out some aspects of their job, and then to take on a different way of thinking, that may be in direct contradiction, when they do other tasks? The MPS clearly thinks they can:

‘Whilst we start from a position of believing the witness, our stance then is to investigate without fear or favour, in a thorough, professional and impartial fashion, and to go where the evidence takes us without prejudging the truth of the allegations’.

There is a sequential simplicity in this position that does not bear scrutiny. There is no hand-over from an empathetic and trusting Witness and Victim Liaison Department to the rational and detached Department of Investigative Scepticism. In reality, when he interviews Nick, Det. Supt. MacDonald is both dealing with a victim/witness and investigating crime (as, incidentally, is the Station Reception Officer when he or she takes down the details of a handbag theft). The prevailing wisdom requires him to simultaneously believe Nick and reserve judgement. His bosses have appointed him to both departments – they do things very differently and make demands on him that are logically incompatible. No wonder he sometimes says the wrong thing on the telly.

There may be consequences here beyond a detective’s mis-speaking. There is a concept in psychology called cognitive dissonance which states that holding two contradictory or incompatible beliefs leads to a state of mental discomfort, that in turn causes the subject to alter, qualify or distort one (or more) of the beliefs to restore mental balance. Without delving too deeply into theory, it is possible to imagine how a police officer’s experience of operating with one foot on either side of the fault line (of being required to simultaneously believe and be impartial) could be difficult, uncomfortable and confusing. It also seems plausible that to resolve that discord the officer (whose professional instinct is to make sense of the world) might unwittingly adopt a belief-set that is more compatible but less grounded in evidence – with implications for the accuser’s right to seek justice, the accused’s right to a fair investigation, or both.

So what should a police officer believe? And how can the risk of dissonance be minimised? Contrary to the reformist position, perhaps the most appropriate answer is nothing’.

The new orthodoxy (as encapsulated in the earlier Winsor quotation and reflected in the MPS double-speak above) holds that the solution to the problem of police disbelief is belief. It assumes that these are the only available belief-states; that to eradicate disbelief, one must believe. This is not the case. Surely it is not beyond the capacity of the police officer to suspend both belief and disbelief while dealing with someone presenting as a victim of crime. Surely, it is how an officer acts, rather than what they believe that is important and should be emphasised in guidance and training.

Police officers must be required to act as if the account provided to them were true; It is a breach of the (apparent) victim’s rights for them to do otherwise, unless and until there is credible evidence that it is not true. This can only be established through impartial investigation, and it is therefore unhelpful and risks dissonance for the police (individually or institutionally) to take up a belief position (either for or against), prior to that investigation.

There are voices warning that the current police approach to handling sexual abuse cases risks seismic damage to the British criminal justice system, perhaps the safest course is to stop telling the police what they should believe and make it abundantly clear what we expect them to do.

Andy Higgins, Senior Analyst, The Police Foundation