It’s probably fair to say that Wednesday was not the best of days for the police. The scandal of the Hilsborough disaster cover-up dominated the headlines, and as many pointed out, the police need to get serious with any officers involved who still serve. We are yet to see sufficient action on this point. Meanwhile, on the same day, a smaller, but not unrelated story was reported: that Detective Constable Ryan Coleman-Farrow has pleaded guilty to thirteen counts of misconduct in his handling of rape and sexual assault cases.
Let’s be clear: Mr Coleman-Farrow wasn’t just a bit incompetent. He didn’t make a scattering of daft mistakes. Not only did he not bother investigating the cases properly, but he actually falsified information to pretend that he had done. He faked computer entries, and he even claimed forensic tests had shown up negative results, when they had not even been carried out. Perhaps most sickening of all, he stated that some accusers had withdrawn their allegations when they had done no such thing.
The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) has apparently looked into this case in some detail – the inherent failings of procedure, the loopholes in the system which allowed unsubstantiated assertions to be trusted as fact without verification, the lack of respect for victims - because they feel confident enough to assure us that Mr Coleman-Farrow is a “rogue police officer,” rather than evidence of anything more systematic. Who knows, maybe they have done, and maybe they’re right. But it won’t just be the cynical among us who are simply not satisfied with that.
After all, it’s a familiar line. “Just a rogue reporter” was the defence the News of the World stuck to for an insultingly long time over the phone-hacking and corruption scandal, wasn’t it? It was also more or less the same argument thrown out following Stephen Lawrence’s murder, in response to accusations of institutional racism. London Mayor Boris Johnson made the argument that although individual officers “may have jumped to the wrong conclusions due to a racialist mindset,” the Macphearson report into institutional racism was a “witch hunt” by the “PC brigade.” Even as recently as 2000, Johnson wrote in the Daily Telegraph that the police were “victims” of the Macphearson report.
So one police officer found guilty of misconduct over his investigation of rape and sexual assault is hardly likely to make many waves in terms of challenging the sexual politics of policing and crime. But rape charities and survivors have long suspected that there is, at the very least, more than one “rogue officer,” with at best a poor understanding of rape. This is backed up by various studies, including a Home Office report which found that that although the percentage of rape allegations proven to be false is just 3%, if you include cases where the police simply had a “perception” that an allegation might be false, the figure shoots up to 8%.
And the growing discomfort over police understanding of rape is not eased by the nature and tone of their ‘prevention’ campaigns, either. Herts Police – to take just one example - perpetuated dangerous myths with these posters, which were described by Jocelyn Anderson of the West Mercia Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Centre as “victim-blaming” and “just wrong.” Following numerous complaints, West Mercia police apologised “if anyone was offended” but also made a point of stating that they were not apologising for the campaign itself, which they presumably felt to be sound and reasonable.
Yet the campaign was troubling for a number of reasons. The most obvious problem with the posters was that they addressed potential victims first, and perpetrators second. The campaign also insulted an awful lot of men, with its warning not to rape people because you could lose your job, which most people would agree is hardly the point. Perhaps most worryingly, the poster appeared to be unclear, even potentially at odds, with the law as set out in the Sexual Offences Act 2003. It warns: “If someone has not given their consent to sex [or touching] you could be breaking the law.” Do we see posters saying that if you take a product from a shop without paying, you could be breaking the law?
This shouldn’t need saying but apparently it still does: making yourself vulnerable isn’t a crime. Violating a person’s bodily autonomy by committing an act of violence against them is. To treat these two things as parallels or moral equivalents, as these posters did; to fail to appreciate the reason they are so problematic; to incorporate these messages into normal policing procedure, suggests that at the very least, a fundamental misunderstanding of rape exists in the force on a more institutionalised level than the IPCC’s reassurances over Coleman-Farrow’s conduct acknowledge.
We don’t know why Mr Coleman-Farrow acted so despicably, but we do know that he got away with it for longer than he should have done. Indeed, even before these thirteen counts of misconduct were brought against him, there were warning signals which, in most jobs, would surely merit some kind of performance monitoring: not least, when two women having their cases investigated by him committed suicide and in their suicide letters made specific complaints about the detective. He was exonerated, although the complaints of “inappropriate text messaging,” and of a request being ignored, were upheld. The IPCC declared this verdict to be “satisfactory.”
Who can say why these cases did not seem worthy of police time to Mr Coleman-Farrow. Who can say whether his actions were born of malice, misogyny, or plain old fashioned incompetence. Is it just a coincidence that these two women driven to suicide, let down by justice, were sex workers, with a history of mental health problems? Perhaps so. But when myths about “classic rape” and its severity exist even at the very top of the Ministry of Justice, is it surprising that officers like Coleman-Farrow are not stopped sooner? No. No, to many of us, I’m afraid it is not surprising at all.