Shoring up the foundations: Victim belief revisited

Blog post

Shoring up the foundations: Victim belief revisited

Last October, at the height of the controversy surrounding Operation Midland the Metropolitan Police investigation into allegations, including murder, by a Westminster paedophile ring I wrote about the problems the police were having in deciding what they should believe and when they should believe it.

In short, I argued that the tremors radiating from a senior detective’s statement that he thought the allegations at the centre of the investigation were ‘credible and true’ resulted from the collision of two incompatible principles to which the police had nailed their colours.

Based on a false assumption that the antidote to the insidious problem of police disbelief is its polar opposite, the police have adopted a policy of automatically believing victim [1] testimony. This has been enshrined in crime recording standards, but is also intended to serve a broader set of moral and functional ends beyond the bureaucratic. At the same time however, as a vital cog in an even-handed criminal justice system, the police are required to be open-minded and impartial in their collection and assessment of evidence. These two belief positions (automatic victim belief and impartial investigation) are, I argued, logically incompatible, risked ‘cognitive dissonance’ and unhelpfully focused on officers’ mental states, instead of their actions and behaviour.

I also argued that the strategy deployed most often in defence of this muddle to insist that the conflicting positions could be isolated within separate, sequential police processes (believe when recording a crime, then investigate impartially) was artificially simple. I would also add that it is organisationally disingenuous we believe you today but we might not tomorrow is barely better than we don’t believe you, and calls into question whether we actually really believe you today.

Now that Operation Midland has been drawn to a close without charges being brought, and with varying degrees of damage done to the reputation of several elderly men of the establishment, public confidence in the police and the cause of those abused in childhood, it seems timely to assess the progress made in shoring up the unstable conceptual foundations on which Operation Midland built its £2 million house [2].

There have been two significant markers put down in this debate in the recent months. One a step forward, the other a heal dug in. First, in February, while announcing a judge-led review and advocating anonymity before charge, MPS Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe stated:

‘The public should be clear that officers do not believe unconditionally what anyone tells them. They are listened to, sometimes at length, before the decision is made to begin an investigation’ [3]

This is progress from the Met’s position in September 2015; it also owes a significant and acknowledged debt to the clear thinking of Dame Elish Angiolini, whose review of rape investigations in London, published in April 2015, includes all the wisdom required to resolve this debate once and for all. Her analysis deserves a lengthy quotation:

‘While complainants clearly want to be believed and may be deterred if they feel this does not happen, it is questionable whether a policy of institutionalised belief’ is appropriate. While demonstrating even the merest disbelief, cynicism or incredulity at a victim’s account is entirely inappropriate, the review questions whether requiring a police officer to believe is an instruction capable of being achieved. Rather than labelling this approach as belief, it is suggested that it is more appropriate for criminal justice practitioners to remain utterly professional at all times and to demonstrate respect, impartiality, empathy and to maintain an open mind The alternative approach of always believing’ the complainant may prejudice the impartiality of the officer’s role and lead to their failing to recognise or give weight to other evidence inconsistent with the complainant’s account.’ [4]

To restate the key points, adding two of my own (in italics) which I hope complement, rather than over-stretch, the original meaning:

  • The way in which police officers and other criminal justice practitioners behave towards those who purport to be victims is of paramount importance.
  • The appropriate form of behaviour is respectful, empathetic, non-cynical, impartial, open-minded, and professional;
    • and is identical to that which would be expected if the practitioner believed the (purported) victim.
  • However to insist that the practitioner actually believe the (purported) victim is probably unrealistic,
    • and is an inappropriate requirement for a profession to place on its members or an employer on its staff.[5]
  • It is also incompatible with the practitioner’s functional role within a criminal justice system founded on the impartial gathering and weighing of evidence.

Given the clarity offered by Dame Angiolini, it is disappointing that the second intervention in the debate represents a missed opportunity to dig-out the conceptual mud from the policy landscape. Last month, at a forum of policy-makers convened by the College of Policing, the decision was taken to prop-up rather than overhaul the existing faulty structures, by continuing to maintain that:

‘At the point when someone makes an allegation of crime, the police should believe the account given and a crime report should be completed in the relevant force system.‘ [6]

One thing we need to be clear about; good crime recording does not require belief, it requires compliance with procedure (write down what you are told and classify it accordingly) and the tendency to constrain the debate to technical concerns about record keeping is unhelpful. But this also begs the question: what is the mandatory belief instruction really about?

On one level it might just be a crude over-reaction to past failings albeit one that creates new problems. What worries me however is that it has at its root a well-intentioned, but poorly thought through mnemonic; a (supposedly) idiot-proof short-cut to get the police to the right outcomes, based on an assumption that they are not equipped to deal with the complexity and nuance at the heart of their job, in these difficult and problematic cases.

There are plenty of other examples of this presumption. I once attended a police training course in which new recruits were being given the basic principles of staying safe in the field. ÛÏThere are only two kinds of risk۝ the trainer asserted, ÛÏThere is high risk and there is unknown risk۝. Now, as a device to emphasise the importance of vigilance this was perhaps a neat trick, but as a basis for the complex risk-assessment decisions the recruits might one day need to make, it clearly provided a dangerously inadequate grounding. The problem is that for the trainer, and those who oversee the training requirement, the simplification held no allegoric subtlety and came with no assumption that the students would take it as anything other than a literal truth.

Like the belief instruction, this has the smell of the presumption that the police need things reduced to very simple oppositions; high-risk or unknown risk, victim or offender, legal or illegal, believe or disbelieve. In an increasingly ambiguous world, such binary simplification is just inadequate.

If police-work has a unique essence it is about making sure that when bad things happen, the right things happen next. Particularly where the starting point is personal testimony, working out what those things should be and how to bring them about can be intricate and difficult work that requires skill, judgement and a finely honed critical, practical, ethical and emotional intelligence. When executed well this can be among the most important roles in society. Although the police have too often fallen short, bypassing large parts of the critical circuitry at the core of this function with a clumsy imperative to believe, de-skills and devalues the police role and, as operation Midland has demonstrated, does not adequately fix the problem.

  1. More properly, complainant or purported victim.
  2. In late 2015 an FOI request revealed the staffing costs of Operation Midland were £1.8. It is now widely reported to have cost at least £2m.
  3. The emphasis added within all quotations is mine.
  4. P 57, Para. 222
  5. After all, with the possible exception of the clergy (for whom questions of belief go beyond establishing matters of historical fact), what other profession seeks to tell its members what they must believe?
  6. The statement continues ‘If, at the time of reporting, there is credible evidence to the contrary that determines no crime was committed then the matter should be recorded as an incident’.