Imagine the scene: thousands of students are about to return to a university city where a young woman has been brutally murdered. The police do not know where or when she died but they announce that her killer "remains at large". They call on men not to go out after dark until the killer is caught. "We ask men to go out in the evening only if their journey is really necessary, and to make sure they're accompanied by a woman," says the senior investigating officer.
Well, that's my fantasy. What the police have actually done in Bristol, where they're under huge pressure to identify the killer (or killers) of a young landscape architect, is issue an appeal to women not to walk home alone after dark. They've issued this alarming edict even though there's a glaring hole in their logic: detectives say they're "satisfied" that 25-year-old Joanna Yeates arrived at her flat in Clifton on 17 December, the night she disappeared, which suggests that home isn't a particularly safe option for local women either.
That message has been reinforced by police advice to "householders" to make sure that their premises are secure and take care when answering the door to strangers. But the specific advice to women to avoid walking home alone after dark means that the onus is once again on one half of the population to make radical changes in their daily routine. How on earth are women and girls in Bristol supposed to avoid going home alone in the dark when the sun sets at around 4.15 in the afternoon? Do Avon and Somerset police seriously expect the city's female population to observe an unofficial 16-hour curfew?
Just think of the chaos on public transport if women teachers, supermarket cashiers, office workers and indeed female police officers – there must be one or two, even if the top brass haven't noticed – rush home before it gets dark. Then there are the cleaners and bar staff whose jobs require them to work unsocial hours; some of them are bound to be students or single mothers, and unable to afford taxis home at the end of a shift.
I was going to write that it's incredible, in the 21st century, that the police are still issuing this thoughtless and insulting advice to women. Sadly, it isn't: it's easier to impose an unofficial curfew than to think about how the streets can be made safer, even if that means accepting the astonishing proposition that our cities and towns are no-go areas for women during the hours of darkness. Could there be a more damning indictment of the police in this country?
Everyone wants more officers on the streets but they're especially needed at night when women are leaving restaurants, waiting for buses and walking home from bus stops. Last year, when I reported a spate of car crime in my street, a PC let slip that there are no routine patrols after 6pm, even though it's a popular late-night cut-through for pedestrians from one main road to another.
It isn't just girls and women who should be angry about this cavalier attitude to public safety. I wonder how men would feel if the entire male population was periodically advised to stay home between dusk and dawn if they want to avoid being murdered? Such advice is more than an imposition; it's an outrage.
It isn't a big step from telling women to stay indoors at night to questioning why we have to go out at all during the hours of darkness when a murderer is "at large". I mean, are we stupid? Guilty of "contributory negligence"? In Bristol, women are already telling reporters how frightened they are in their own homes, let alone on the streets; they don't know what to do and the situation has been exacerbated by confusing and contradictory messages from senior officers on the Yeates investigation. A "suspect" has been released on bail and suddenly there is talk of more than one killer; it still isn't clear whether Ms Yeates was followed home by a stranger, let someone known to her into the building where she lived, or confronted the killer inside her flat.
What's particularly distressing about this case is that the victim was a modern young woman, doing a job she loved in a vibrant city. On the night she disappeared, she did perfectly ordinary things like stopping on the way home for a pizza; if this could happen to her, it could happen to anybody.
Against this background, making local women feel even more vulnerable isn't helpful, especially when the advice they're being offered is next to useless. What's needed is the reassurance of extra patrols, police travelling on buses at night, and a much greater readiness on the part of officers to look out for and challenge men on dark streets. And if you think that's a breach of civil liberties, it's no more so than expecting half the population to stay at home after dark.
A similar edict was given in the 1970s, as the number of women murdered by the Yorkshire Ripper continued to climb. Ripper squad detectives warned women not to go out alone after dark – a fat lot of good to me, since I often had to work night shifts on a radio station in Manchester, a city where the Ripper had already killed two women. Long before Peter Sutcliffe was caught, I realised that the police were making a terrible mess of the investigation, largely because of their outdated and misogynist attitudes to women's lives.
Now senior officers in Bristol appear to be treating local women like Victorian ladies who are accustomed to needing chaperones. In 1977, women students in Leeds responded by organising the first Reclaim the Night march in this country, and similar demonstrations were soon taking place in other towns and cities. The message – that women would not be terrorised off the streets either by the Ripper or the police failing to do their job properly – was unambiguous.
I understand why the murder of Joanna Yeates has gripped the nation, and I want her killer or killers to be caught. In the meantime, local women are right to be anxious – and entitled to advice that recognises how they live and work. If Avon and Somerset police can't provide that, I hope women in Bristol will come on to the streets and once again Reclaim the Night.
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