There are few things that require more courage than reporting rape to the police. Less than 16% of women who are sexually assaulted in Britain alert the authorities, according to the latest estimate from the Crime Survey for England and Wales, and many silent victims wait years to come forwards over fears they won’t be believed or will be blamed themselves.
The UK data watchdog has now found that police forces are treating rape victims who are brave enough to come forwards ‘like suspects’ by ‘excessively’ ordering them to ‘hand over extraordinary amounts of information’ including medical records, social service files and school reports in what has been called a ‘digital strip search’.
‘Victims and survivors are being coerced into consenting to use of their personal data with the threat that if they do not give access to it, it will negatively impact their case,’ Rape Crisis told Grazia. ‘Rather than specifying data that is relevant to the case, police are taking shortcuts – asking for blanket consent to everything and then picking and choosing what might be relevant.'
‘This goes beyond a lack of understanding; it is an outright disregard for victim welfare in favour of an easier investigative route. The impact this has on victims and survivors is immense, with many describing being in the criminal justice system as more traumatising than the assault itself.’
According to the report by the information commissioner John Edwards, the police’s intrusive practices make it unsurprising that many victims choose to withdraw from the legal process. Currently, just 1.3% of rapes result in a charge in England and Wales.
‘It has never made any sense to me why victims of rape and sexual assault are told to hand over the contents of their mobile phone, social media etc as a “pre-condition” to access justice,’ wrote one woman on Twitter. ‘It’s way past time that victims are treated with respect and not as suspects.’
Currently, it’s a post code lottery on whether survivors are subject to the most intrusive investigating practises after reporting their assault. According to an investigation conducted by the Guardian in 2018, the Metropolitan police request access to social media, web browsing activity, messages, location data, emails, deleted data, images, videos, audio files, apps, contacts, documents and texts. Meanwhile in Merseyside, police can request educational, counselling and social service records. In Gwent, no such information is needed.
Last summer, the government published in their Rape Review that any data requested from survivors would be only what was ‘necessary and proportionate to allow reasonable lines of inquiry into the alleged offence'.
The Attorney General subsequently determined last week that victims’ phones should be given back to them within 24 hours, and the Home Office has assigned £5million to new technology to help police officers abide by this target.
‘We’re still concerned about the experience of feeling examined and scrutinised,’ Edwards said on Radio 4’s Today programme in response to the government’s changes. ‘All that data from a phone sitting on a police file…There’s an element of indiscriminacy which we’re concerned about.’
‘You feel forced to sign away everything, otherwise there is the fear that the case will be dropped,’ shared one survivor on Twitter. ‘It’s simply outrageous – no other crime treats the victim as a suspect.’