“Crying wolf”: Why don’t the police believe women?

By Anna Fryer

In December 2012 Naomi Oni was attacked with acid on her commute home from work by a jealous friend.

The fear, pain and panic of this horrific attack are difficult to comfortably contemplate. Unfortunately for Naomi, this was only the start of her ordeal. Painful medical procedures, a prolonged hospital admission, and a traumatic police investigation added to her distress.

Naomi alleges that the Metropolitan Police Service accused her of throwing acid in her own face, as a histrionic self-harm, motivated by a desire for publicity and fame. Although one can understand the need to explore all avenues of enquiry, as the Met have stated, this seems like an incredibly unlikely scenario. I have worked as a Psychiatrist for many years, and such severe and maiming self injury for secondary gain is exceedingly rare. How then did such an outlandish theory escalate to the point where the victim was not only accused but told that no assailant was seen following her on the CCTV footage?

Do the answers lie in the attitudes of police officers towards women, and in institutional ambivalent sexism? Currently the Police Service is not representative of the citizens it serves; nationally only 27.3% of police officers are female, and women are grossly underrepresented in the higher echelons of management and leadership in the force. As an organisation, women were only integrated into the force in the early 70s, and the force failed to drop the prefix for Woman Police Constables until 1999.

Could the ‘canteen culture’ of sexism within the police force lead to such disastrous practices as victim blaming and a loss of empathy, with the potential of ultimately alienating the victim and causing further psychological damage? This case highlights a wider problem of gender bias. In a damning report on police response to domestic abuse, published last week, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary reported:

“HMIC is concerned about the poor attitudes that some police officers display towards victims of domestic abuse.”

“Victims told us that they were frequently not taken seriously, that they felt judged and that some officers demonstrated a considerable lack of empathy and understanding.”

Earlier this year, similar concerns were raised about a “culture of disbelief” over rape allegations, after figures showed some police forces were recording “no crime” for as many as a third of rapes reported to them. Liz Kelly, Chair of End Violence Against Women, told The Guardian:

“Our member organisations know how deep disbelief and victim-blaming goes on in institutions and communities. But the police play a critical role enabling rape survivors to access justice, so these disparities and attitudes must be urgently tackled.”

The psychodynamic perspective on groups and institutions gives us some insight into these attitudes by highlighting the dangers of depersonalisation and loss of identity in groups such as the police. As an institution with rigid roles and hierarchy, with a uniform and number in lieu of a name, the police may experience themselves less as individuals.

The severe stresses of such an environment and the effects of this depersonalisation could worsen maladaptive defences (i.e. inappropriate coping strategies). As individuals experience stress, the unwanted or taboo parts of the self are projected onto others, so that they elicit projected behaviour. It is human to externalise unacceptable feelings and attribute them to others, and this primitive defence mechanism is highly relevant in groups and institutions.

Groupthink as a phenomenon within groups can inhibit the rational reactions of individuals. There is ample evidence that our behaviour can be drastically modified with the conscious and unconscious pull to conformity and harmony of the group. The infamous Stanford Prison experiment in 1971 was conducted in a “mock” prison, where groups of young college students were assigned prisoner and guard roles. After the “prisoner” group staged a revolt on day two, the guards assertively regained control and used increasing levels of abusive and dehumanising behaviour. The experiment was halted early when the researcher realised that even they had become embroiled in the groupthink mentality by allowing such a damaging experiment to continue.

Ambivalent sexism is a theoretical concept developed by Dr Peter Glick and Dr Susan Fiske to understand gender based prejudice. Hostile and benevolent sexism are described, with the former representing the overtly hateful, such as beliefs that women are inherently inferior, manipulative or evil. Benevolent sexism describes attitudes which may appear subjectively positive, such as beliefs that women should be protected, or be put on a pedestal. However both forms remain damaging to individuals and to gender equality in their reinforcing message of separateness.

In the institution of the police, is the taboo of sexism projected into the group, resulting in institutionalised sexist practice?

It would be unfair to the police to suggest that this depersonalisation, with its resulting dehumanising behaviour and loss of empathy, is unique to their field.

I remember the loss of identity I felt as a young junior doctor in an environment where breaks were non-existent, and the work was challenging and never ending. The more stress I experienced, the more detached I became, with a loss of empathy for individuals at a dreadful point their lives. Patients became their illness, or a task rather than a whole person. In psychodynamic terms they became a part object only, to defend against the fear and anxiety of death and destruction which were ever present in the hospital environment. The Stafford Hospital scandal epitomises an institution’s descent into anti-human behaviour.

In more recent times, the savage cuts and erosion of pay and work conditions suffered by the police force can only increase the stress on individuals and the reliance on primitive defences to manage unbearable anxiety. The most shocking thing about Naomi Oni’s experience is not that it happened, but that it is a worrying omen of the police as an institution becoming more detached from the public they serve.

Anna Fryer is a Psychiatrist, feminist, mother of one preschooler and fan of the arts. Follow her  @annacfryer

Image: ITV Player

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8 thoughts on ““Crying wolf”: Why don’t the police believe women?

  1. Roy

    One thing I remember from one of the books that I read a couple of years ago from the 90’s or early 00’s (I dont think it was Policing the code) was in a book published by HMSO which included qualitave research including interviews and observations and one of those sections demonstrated that ‘female’ Police Constables were particulary hostile and agressive in trying to imply that a ‘female’ victim is lying. When I mentioned this to Vera Baird QC she mentioned she had seen recordings of interviews from this time and that the Police have had to learn from their mistakes. I however think the Police are incapable of learning from mistakes and instead just repeats them in a slightly different way.

  2. Roy

    Sorry, should have added that I find the Police to be in effect a male. The Police itself is a Gestalt Legal entity created by one of two Police Acts. It is thus not just male dominated, but has formed itself and instills in all those who takes the oath to be absorbed into the single Gestalt (there are only 45 Constables in the UK including Nuclear Police and British Transport) male characterists using the definition by Mackinnon.

  3. Derrington

    I would ask, having had to make a complaint about the police officer attending a sexist attack on me in my home, how much of the police force’s use of young male officers and the media they use about women, informs the way they see rape and sexist violence victims? The primary media for spreading rape myths amongst men is porn which frequently portrays highly sexist storylines about women and children entrapping men into sex which then is described as rape under the storyline. If the police are not allowed to join racist organisations for fear of the way it will effect their policing, why not ask what effect sexist media has on their capacity to remain neutral towards sexist violence and the victims of the same?

    1. Anna Fryer

      I completedly agree. There is a wider issue of a cultural shift, not only in the police but a societal one to change attitudes.

  4. Roy

    One problem is, this was especially the case until the 90’s, as from Home Office Books on Policing that the Police had a culture of recruiting large people who to quote a former Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police “like fast cars and to get into a bit of a scrum” many selectors and forces/services deliberately tried to get more male than females on the basis that as Police need to be violent to roam the streets and use violence (consider Germany who ban pacifists who have refused National Service as a clear admission of that).

    This is part of the reason the Police recruit a disproportionate number of ex Army who the Army considered incapable of independent though (not allowed to be officers) to ex Army Officers.

    The Police by being a violent institution, attracting men and women who consider violence to be acceptable and the Police a way of committing violence whilst hiding behind a uniform. This in turn often mean Police lack the skills to think about how to investigate as they generally lack the legal knowledge or social skills to deal with situations without violence, and the only difference between the Police Men and Women and the thugs making the sexist attacks that you mention is the Police got through a selection procedure (which seems to have been run by many Police who are now starting to be as former Chief Inspectors and even Chief Constables being investigated for corruption, sexual offences and other offences. This means Police intelligence data used to screen Police itself is contaminated.
    This of course means that the Police attending things such as sexual crimes have been in effect screened by an institution that is in itself a sex offender (in law this is shown by the single gestalt entity created by either the metropolitan Police Act or the Rural Police Act as in law itself the Police ‘corporations’ are a legal entity or legal Person).

    1. Calum

      Re recruitment from the forces, this probably has more to do with the fact that an officer on leaving the forces after four or five years service is on a 50-60k salary and probably not keen to get kicked back down to 18k for three or four years.

    2. Anna Fryer

      I don’t know what recruitment procedures are like now. I would hope that there is psychometric testing to look for any extreme personality traits that are not compatable.

  5. Roy

    Erm the problem is to be in the Police you need to be violent. To show this clearly Germany ban pacifists from the Police, but now they have dropped National Service (the Ban starts the day you signed the declaration of being a pacifist for not serving in the army and lasted 15 yrs) I don’t know how they can source them. Handcuffing is an act of violence. So the Police are an institution that promotes a violent society.


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