PCC Blog 75

Each morning for the last seven years, I have read something called the Chief Constable’s Log.

This is a brief summary of some of the more serious crimes and other incidents that have concerned the police in the previous twenty four hours. It can be a depressing list – from domestic abuse to commercial burglary, drug dealing to homicide, across all districts. The Log is a window onto some of the darker aspects of human nature and as a result I am not easily shocked when I hear or read about others.

But last week was an exception.

I read about some research into the sexual attitudes and behaviours of heterosexual male university students, undertaken by the University of Kent’s Centre of Research and Education in Forensic Psychology. The research consisted of two on-line surveys. The first was completed by 295 students from 100 universities across the UK, the second by 259 students at one university in the south east of England.

The results were shocking. Of the 554 participants, 63 admitted to committing 251 sexual offences in the previous two years: sexually aggressive acts, attempted rapes, rapes and other coercive and unwanted acts.

The perpetrators of these offences had pronounced misogynistic views and the researchers found a strong correlation between this type of ‘toxic’ masculinity and sexual violence. These offenders believed, for example, that women who get drunk have only themselves to blame if they are raped. And they revealed that they had sadistic sexual fantasies about raping or torturing women.

It was sobering to realise that some of the offences would have been committed while the students were still at school. Yet these were probably among the best performing students in their year and are on the threshold of having careers in business, the public services and the professions.

I read this research shortly after being asked by students at local universities to support an anti-spiking campaign – which I was happy to do. But whatever happens in our town or city centres on Friday nights, the students may also have to turn their attention to something a little closer to home – their fellow students.

Not all the males in the surveys were like this, but a significant minority were. And the strong association between sexual assaults and underlying negative attitudes towards women ought to concentrate all our minds.

The police are generally involved after the event. But if we are to reduce sexual violence against women there is profoundly important work to be done around the attitudes and behaviours of young males. We need the 491 who did not have misogynistic attitudes to be supported and we need to encourage them to make their views known to some of their fellow students. They have to be the role models.

Getting smarter?

In previous blogs I have said that I believe smart motorways of the type we have in South Yorkshire are inherently dangerous. These are the ones where the hard shoulder has been permanently turned into an extra lane – All Lane Running (ALR) motorways – with no place to pull off in an emergency other than designated places quite some distance apart. Now, the Transport Select Committee has asked the government to pause the roll-out of further smart motorways while they look again at the evidence for their safety. I welcome that, and see it as a tribute to the determined campaigning of Claire Mercer whose partner, Jason was killed in a collision in a live lane on the M1 near Rotherham.

But I fear there may be relevant factors that are never likely to be considered in any fresh appraisal.

For example, an HGV driver contacted me to say that no one ever mentioned the effect ALR smart motorways have on drivers like him. He comes this way regularly and by the time he has reached this stretch of the motorway from his starting point in the south, he has been driving for three hours and is not as fresh as he was when starting out. He becomes anxious when approaching this section of road.

It takes time for him in his cab to understand whether a vehicle in front is just moving slowly or has actually stopped. Sometimes he has had to take a late decision, moving sharply into the live lane to his right. He has also had to take swift action when the vehicle in front of him did the same – leaving him unsighted on a car that had stopped ahead until he was almost upon it.

He was convinced that as important as the collisions were the near misses – but there will be no statistics for them. His point is that we should not be building roads that add to drivers’ stress and this stress and the near misses should be taken into account as much as the recorded collisions.

In our understandable desire for a solid evidence base, factors like this – near misses, anxiety levels – are never going to feature. In other contexts we call this ‘lived experience’ and think it matters. But if we can’t build an evidence base on anecdotes – neither should we completely ignore them.

On the other hand ….

This is an imagined scenario, but it is not far from something that did happen and illustrates why we can’t build evidence bases on anecdotes.

Two householders in Rotherham noticed that a young girl was visiting a particular house in their street at reasonably regular intervals. She came in a car and was taken into the house. The car then drove off. After a while other people came to the house, stayed a while before leaving. Eventually, the car returned and took the girl away.

Both neighbours thought they could be watching a vulnerable teenager being exploited for sexual purposes – child sexual exploitation, CSE. One neighbour contacted the police who investigated – as they must do. They were able to report to the concerned neighbour that in fact the girl was from a children’s home in another part of the county who was brought to visit a relative from time to time and when she did, other family members or friends dropped in. It was not what is seemed.

The other neighbour told her local councillor that she had seen grooming going on in the street …..

From time to time I receive emails, phone calls and texts from people reporting such incidents. I get them from former victims of child sexual exploitation who are convinced that something they have seen or heard about is suspicious behaviour. I tell the police who investigate and report back to me. Sometimes there is something that needs an intervention – though not for CSE – but most of the time it is a case of drawing wrong conclusions, as in the above imagined scenario.

It is important that people report, because CSE never goes away and we must remain vigilant. And neither the police nor the local authority can be everywhere. They rely on an alert community. But we also need to understand how easy it can be to misperceive what is happening and how, therefore, we must report to the police or social services and not jump to conclusions.

Last week some fairly recently elected members of Rotherham Council published a document in which they said that CSE was going on in the borough and neither the police nor social services were doing anything about it. They gave instances of what had been reported to them which they had given to the police who, they allege, had not investigated properly. They also put down a long motion at this week’s council meeting repeating the allegations.

These would be serious allegations anywhere in the country, but here, after what happened in the past, they are incendiary.

As soon as I heard about this I spoke to the district commander and we went through what the councillors had presented. Most of the allegations were so vague that it was hard to know where to begin. Where the police were able to work out what the allegations might be referring to, they included misperceptions of the kind I highlight above in the imagined scenario. At the time I write this, the councillors have not taken up the offer of the commander to take them through what they have alleged, nor have they approached their own Chief Executive to see what their own Social Services do in relation to CSE, nor have they asked me to look into this. After all, my job is precisely to hold the force to account.

In the meantime, police officers who deal with CSE every day have been in touch with me to say how upset they are at the allegations. The teams that work on CSE – and there are currently some 35 active cases in the borough – are dedicated and committed officers, co-located with social workers in Riverside House. They are determined to safeguard our children and their work has been recognised in both Ofsted and HMI reports. To attack them in this public way without checking the facts is reprehensible. What has been alleged is untrue, but, if believed, could only undermine trust in the police and result in some people not reporting, including victims.

I hope this is a case of inexperienced councillors not knowing what officers are doing to keep safe vulnerable children, and how passionate those officers who deal with CSE are about their work. I hope the councillors will now go and talk to the teams and learn for themselves.

Above all, I hope this is inexperience because the alternative explanation – using something as serious as CSE to make political mischief – would be unforgivable.

We must not jump to conclusions.

Stay safe and well