Taking the full force of the law

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MR JUSTICE Ognall threw out the case against Colin Stagg because his sadistic and satanic sexual fantasies had been excited by a policewoman. This was the crux of the police operation in the Rachel Nickell murder case, and, the judge said, constituted manipulation and incrimination.

This deployment of a policewoman exposed a vacuum at the heart of the investigation. More than that, a shroud of women's sexuality as dangerous incitement was laid across another woman's body.

The power of women to make men murder - and make men confess to murder - was again conjured by the dismissal of the police case against Keith Hall, on trial for murdering his wife Pat in March. Mr Justice Waterhouse ruled that taped conversations between Mr Hall and a policewoman posing as his lover were inadmissible, saying: 'He was liable to succumb to pressure and say anything . . . to appease the apparent needs of the woman with whom he had fallen in love.'

Being set up as professional whores is the latest indignity women must endure from a police culture that does not seem to know what to do with them. Indeed, is the police service an impossible profession for women? One that seems to have become more confused and contrary, ironically, since the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act. The old policewomen's department was abolished and WPCs were thrown into a den where they weren't wanted.

According to pioneering research for the Home Office by Dr Jennifer Brown of Hampshire Police, nine out of 10 policewomen have to put up with verbal sexual harassment, two-thirds endure unwelcome touching and more than one in 20 suffers serious sexual assault.

Dr Brown's research team discovered that harassment caused policewomen more stress than police work itself. The drop-out rate costs us a fortune. According to Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary, while 30 per cent of recruits are women, they make up about 13 per cent of the service. The replacement cost of an officer with six or seven years' experience is about pounds 200,000.

One such loss was the rookie who joined in 1975, when the policewoman's lot began to get worse. 'I thought I was joining the policewomen's department. But then it all changed. It was the aggression and sexual innuendo that got me. I'd walk into a room where the police inspector was sitting, he'd grab you and make you sit on his knee. That would happen quite frequently.' His behaviour was premeditated and public, she said: 'There would be three or four other officers there.'

A colleague assaulted her while patrolling an industrial estate. 'I blamed myself, women do, don't they.' She told no one.

She left, but returned in the Nineties 'because I always wondered whether I'd done the right thing. But it was horrible. You'd go into the canteen, you'd say something and the men would just turn away.'

Ana Starcevic, an inspector in Northamptonshire, believes if a policewoman says she 'hasn't been sexually harassed it is not because she hasn't, it's because she hasn't got a name for it'. She avoided stereotypes, became a sergeant in the tactical firearms unit and specialised in car crime. She also took an MA in women's studies which 'helped to make sense of my world and validated my experience and my frustration'.

Her college research into sexual harassment and coping strategies was welcomed by her own force and written into its grievance procedures. But research also shows great reluctance to use the grievance procedures - because the action often rebounds on the victim.

The conventional wisdom that 'women can't take it' is challenged by modernising managers such as Sussex Chief Constable Paul Whitehouse: 'If the police can't treat their colleagues properly, they won't be able to treat the public properly.' Dr Brown agrees: 'You don't credit wisdom from a source you denigrate.'

The costs of not listening well enough to women can be high. In the Yorkshire Ripper case, investigators pursued the 'material evidence' of a cassette tape purporting to be from the killer which was at odds with a description offered by women who survived Peter Sutcliffe's attacks.

The officers investigating the abduction of Abbie Humphries in Nottinghamshire followed a pseudo-scientific profile of an abductor rather than heed the persistent calls made by three women friends whose experience of childbirth and post-natal care led them to the abductor's home.

Disrespect for women's experience is not lost on the HMIC; since the late Eighties it has been a feature of its annual inspections. A 1992 report on equal opportunities found 'strong evidence that women police officers were suffering persistent low level harassment unchecked by supervisors'.

Policing is going through a dramatic period of debate and reform - and resistance. The sex discrimination case brought by Merseyside's assistant chief constable Alison Halford portrayed senior management as incompetent and offensive. Worse, Halford has alleged more serious and sinister acts by the force: 'They tapped my phone, home and at work, they bugged my office. . . . Now the sort of things I'm talking about are criminal.'