Shana Grice, one of the many women killed by a violent ex-partner, would probably be alive today were it not for widescale failures of police to act properly on incidents of stalking and domestic abuse. The complacency about male violence towards women across our criminal justice system is a major symptom of endemic, institutionalised misogyny within the police service.
When Grice called police on Michael Lane after he chased her down the street, snatched her phone and pulled her hair, it was Grice, not her abuser, who felt the long arm of the law. In the proud tradition of blaming women abused by men they once said yes to, the police decided Grice was lying because Lane showed a number of text messages from Grice that indicated they had been in a relationship. Lane had been reported to police in 2010 by a woman accusing him of harassment, but no action was taken. Following Grice’s death in 2016, 11 more women came forward to accuse Lane of stalking and harassment.
It’s not as if feminist campaigners, including survivors of the most extreme forms of male violence, haven’t been telling police to buck up their ideas for decades. In 2005, my investigation on stalking murders showed that stalking and harassment when done by men to female ex-partners is a clear warning of homicide risk.
The Centre for Women’s Justice recently submitted a super complaint logging some of the routine and widespread failures in the policing of rape and domestic violence. Dash, the Domestic Abuse, Stalking and Honour Based Violence model – the most widely used risk-assessment tool in the UK – highlights the risk factors, including coercive control, attempted strangulation, threats with knives, separation, sexual violence and stalking. What Dash can’t do is eliminate the prejudicial views many police officers hold about female complainants in domestic and sexual violence cases.
As Davina James-Hanman, who advises police on domestic violence policy and practice, tells me, there is a tendency among criminal justice agencies to elevate acts of physical violence above other forms of abuse – but for most abused women, acts of physical violence are not frequent and are often low-level assaults. What indicates high risk is the abuser treating them with contempt, and as an object and a possession. Coercive control and stalking feature in almost all domestic homicides whereas previous incidents of physical violence only feature in about half.
Coercive control, which is always the backbone of stalking and harassment, became illegal in December 2015, but how many police forces have actually undergone training in the law? Karen Ingala Smith, founder of Counting Dead Women, says: “The most basic lesson of all, ‘believe women’, seems never to be learned. We should believe women when they report violence, and when they tell us that they are afraid for their lives. Women and girls who do speak out are routinely disbelieved.”
Myths about false or malicious allegations; stereotypes of paranoid time-wasters, nagging wives, slags and harridans; victim-blaming notions about deserving and undeserving victims and risk-takers – these are all continually regurgitated. This is not a matter of one rogue police force, it is endemic and country-wide. Grice knew that Lane was a danger to her. Time and time again, I have heard of cases such as this where women have told police they will die unless the perpetrator is dealt with.
Until we tackle sexism in the police service, women like Shana Grice will die preventable deaths. As I found when producing a radio documentary alongside the formidable Jackie Malton, former Metropolitan police detective, sickening attitudes and behaviour prevail among many male officers towards both female colleagues and members of the public.
If a victim of stalking can be criminalised for “wasting police time”, then the officers responsible should also face criminal proceedings for misconduct in public office. Until police face serious sanctions for conduct of this kind and those in charge are also held accountable, nothing will change. We will continue to see murders of women that could have been prevented.
It is telling that the number of women killed by men in the UK has remained fairly static for as long as statistics have been monitored, despite decades of feminist campaigning against bad practice. It is time to recognise that until police are held properly accountable for such catastrophic failures to protect vulnerable women, our morgues will still groan under the weight of such tragedies.