A police force twice failed to investigate claims that a woman had been sexually assaulted, because officers decided she was making the allegations up as a result of her mental health condition.
The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) concluded this week that there were “serious failings” in the way Essex police responded to the woman’s allegations.
On two occasions in 2007, a man broke into the woman’s home and subjected her to a serious sexual assault.
On both occasions, Essex police officers visited her home but didn’t believe her allegations because of her mental health history. They reported that no offence had been committed.
It was only when her family and GP complained about the lack of action that the force carried out a proper investigation. A man subsequently pleaded guilty to sexual assault and was jailed for six years in March 2008.
IPCC commissioner Len Jackson said the IPCC investigation had found “serious failings” by individual officers and the force.
He said: “We have substantiated a number of complaints made by the family including that the lack of positive action by officers was adversely influenced by the woman’s mental health history.
“I remain saddened for the victim and her family who have conducted themselves with great dignity throughout these protracted proceedings.”
He said the lack of support and help for the woman “stemmed from very poor policing and totally inadequate supervision”.
At a disciplinary hearing earlier this year, an inspector, a detective constable, a sergeant and a police constable were fined between 5 and 13 days’ pay, while another sergeant received a reprimand and another constable a caution.
Mark Roberts, a founder member of the campaigning network Mad Pride, said access to justice was a “huge” problem for people with mental health conditions and that any allegations less serious than murder were unlikely to be investigated by police.
He said: “It is very widespread, if not the dominant orthodoxy. It happens more often than it doesn’t.”
He said the problem stemmed from the attitudes of lawyers and judges, who treat people with mental health conditions as “unreliable witnesses”.
Roberts added: “The police just say it would be a waste of money [to investigate] and the court chucks it out.
“There must be a law brought in that makes it illegal to consider automatically that someone is an unreliable witness.”
Andy Bliss, deputy chief constable of Essex police, said the way the force dealt with the woman’s allegations was “totally unacceptable”, and added: “I have personally apologised to the victim of these appalling and extremely distressing crimes.”
He said the case was “a wake-up call to us about the way we deal with people with mental ill-health”, and as a “direct result” the force had introduced new training for frontline officers, with further training for officers in dealing with allegations of serious sexual assaults.
22 September 2010