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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