The brutal murder of one woman, Sarah Everard, at the hands of a serving police officer in March 2021 brought into sharp focus the everyday violence against hundreds of thousands of women and girls across the country.
She was just walking home.
Sarah’s abduction and death lit a touch paper, prompting an outpouring of grief, frustration and rage.
Women marched on Clapham Common and protested across the country from Parliament Square to Edinburgh.
It put the scourge of violence against women and girls into the heart of our national discourse.
And it put huge pressure on society, the government, the criminal justice system and the police to bring about genuine change.
Image: There was an outpouring of grief and anger after the murder of Sarah Everard Because women are right to be angry. Sexual harassment and abuse is commonplace in our society and is an area of policing and the criminal justice system that fell victim to cuts in funding during the austerity years of the last decade.
Sarah Crewe, England and Wales’s national police lead for rape and sexual offences, told us in an interview at Somerset and Avon Police headquarters that budget cuts meant they had to scale back the specialist units.
“We were starting to make progress on understanding, as practitioners, how to tackle it for a variety of reasons, not least austerity,” she said.
“We had to make some choices in policing, and Avon and Somerset was no different from other forces, and that specialism had to retract slightly. So some of that learning was lost. We’re re-learning it now and we’re learning new knowledge.”
She added: “We know that the country was facing a challenge, policing was facing a challenge. We had to make choices. The whole of policing had to be looked at and made more efficient. And so we didn’t stop investigating these cases.
“But that time and energy and the resources we could put on them were not the specialist dedicated resources that we had before.”
Image: Chief Constable Sarah Crewe says funding cuts hit her force’s ability to tackle violence against women And austerity did bite. Police funding fell 16% in real terms between 2009/10 to 2018/19, while the Crown Prosecution Service saw budget cuts of 25% over that period.
But in the past two years there has been renewed attention on this issue, driven by a government that knows it has let women down and has set new targets around rape charges, as well as a new strategy to better tackle to epidemic of violence against women and girls in our society.
The former justice secretary Sir Robert Buckland said he was “deeply ashamed” of the government’s record as he apologised to women and girls and launched the Rape Review to improve outcomes for victims in 2021.
Alongside that plan, the government set new targets to hit 5,200 prosecutions in the year to March 2024 and to get charge levels to 3,700 – levels last hit in 2016.
And women are being failed. One in four women will be the victims of domestic abuse in their lifetimes.
Behind closed doors, abuse and coercive behaviour can happen to anyone, even a serving police officer like Sharon Baker, who we interviewed for this deep dive into the tackling of violence against women and girls.
Now the lead on domestic abuse at Avon and Somerset Police, she was silently suffering abuse for a number of years and recounted to us the night she told her ex-partner she was going to leave.
“He assaulted me,” she said. “I thought I was going to die that night.”
Image: Detective Inspector Sharon Baker was a victim of domestic abuse Now Detective Inspector Baker is heading the unit to help victims like her.
The wider challenge is immense. The national number of rapes and sexual offences were the highest on record in the year to March 2022, with almost 200,000 sexual offence crimes recorded – a jump of 32% on the previous year. The levels are so high that the victims’ commissioner said that rape has effectively become decriminalised.
And this figure – while at a record high – disguises the true scale of these crimes. Chief Constable Crewe says that, on a conservative estimate, the reported cases account for about half all instances of sexual offence crimes.
The outcomes on the latest data makes for grim reading. The most recent information from the Home Office shows just 2.9% of reported sexual offences and 1.3% of rapes result in a charge or summons in court.
That’s down from the year to March 2020, and a lot worse than 2016 when 9.6% of sexual offences and 7% of rapes resulted in a charge or summons.
But police officers like DI Baker and CC Crewe are trying to turn the tide. The schemes they are trailing here in the South West are now being rolled out across the country.
They are, said Chief Constable Crewe, making progress, with their rape charge rates doubling 3.1% to 6.2%.
“We hear women up and down the country saying they want better. And that’s why it’s a priority.”
The numbers are still appallingly low, but there is some tentative optimism that progress really is happening and can be rolled out to other forces.
Chief Constable Crewe thinks the national targets of rape prosecutions are within touching distance, despite deep scepticism from some who have campaigned in this area.
“I think we’re already showing signs that it’s possible,” she said. “So if we look at this as a pipeline, the first stage of that pipeline is the police referring more cases for charge to the Crown Prosecution Service.
“We’ve already exceeded nationally and certainly locally that threshold, the next stage is for the Crown Prosecution Service to authorise charges so the case goes to court. There’s been quarter on quarter improvement nationally there.
“If we can maintain this momentum in the four other Pathfinder forces [those rolling out their targeted scheme] that are following us and the 14 other that we’re expanding into, and indeed in all the other forces that we’re sharing our learning with, actually, I can see a situation where we’re exceeding those levels.
“Targets are okay, but even that 2016 as a target is unacceptable. What we want to see is directional progress and improvement, forcing change actually throughout the whole system and that includes a public understanding of these issues.”
But how they do that is the challenge.
Avon and Somerset Police were the first force to pilot a new programme to transform the policing response to rape and sexual offences, and the rate at which they’re prosecuted.
The programme is called Operation Soteria and looks at the entire process – from the police to the Crown Prosecution Service, with a particular focus on the suspect rather than on the credibility of the victim.
“This is actually about how we integrate all aspects of our criminal justice system,” former home secretary Priti Patel told us in an interview about this subject.
“It’s not just policing in one corner, and the CPS, in another corner. It’s bringing the teams together, and all credit to Sarah Crewe and Avon and Somerset for this particular type of work.”
“I’m not saying we don’t need to look at ourselves,” says Chief Constable Crewe. “We absolutely do.
“But the focus needs to be on how we’re understanding those perpetrators, how they’re exploiting the system, how they are grooming us, and how we need to place the focus on them or bring them out of the shadows and change the debate and rebalance it.”
Another debate that Avon and Somerset Police are trying to rebalance is around the “stigma” and “stereotypes” associated with sex workers – who themselves are often raped and abused by “customers” paying for sex.
“I think the stereotype and the stigma they’ve got is just really unnecessary and cruel. These are vulnerable women that need looking after, safeguarding,” says PC Lucy Hassell – who works on Operation Topaz.
This a programme borne out of varying serious case reviews finding authorities to have failed children in not spotting signs of child sexual exploitation early enough, often because of a lack of communication between professionals.
The aim of Topaz is to connect different parts of the system – be it social services, education, or health – to ensure child sexual abuse doesn’t slip through the net.
Part of that requires intelligence, which takes decades to garner. But this force has taken a new approach.
We joined Lucy Hassell and Jo Ritchie from Barnardo’s out on their fortnightly patrol, working to protect women on the streets of Bristol.
“The first thing we do is check in with them and check that they’re okay,” said Ms Ritchie, from the charity’s child sexual exploitation unit.
“But if they are in a good place, and we assess that it’s appropriate, then we will speak to them and say, have you got any worries about children and young people out at the moment?”
Image: Lucy Hassell and Jo Ritchie carry out fortnightly patrols It’s a cycle so often repeating itself.
“Quite often these women, really tragically, have been sexually exploited themselves prior to being 18,” said Ms Ritchie. “So it’s quite difficult for them at times to understand for example, a 17-year-old being picked up by a customer is sexual exploitation.”
What was the clear from the time we spent with this force is that they’re determined to make change. They know it won’t be easy. And they know recent events have made it that bit more protracted.
“Policing works on trust,” said Chief Constable Crewe. “It works on consent. There’s a bond of trust between the public and the police. And it’s been damaged.
“It’s not been broken and destroyed, but it’s been damaged and it needs to be repaired.”
Women up and down the country are demanding change. Whether it happens, how long it takes, and what it looks like are all questions that society, the police, and the justice system will need to answer.