Last month, a former police officer working for London’s specialist rape investigation unit was sentenced to two years in prison for signing witness statements himself and lying about forensic testing in rape and sexual assault cases. The case shows that victims of these serious crimes are not only let down by police failures – something which is all too common – but are also the victims of deliberate wrongdoing by officers, whose actions allow their attackers to walk free.
On 10 December 2015, Carl Ryan, a former Detective Constable in a Sapphire Unit of the Metropolitan Police Force (MPS) was found guilty of five counts of misconduct in public office and was acquitted on a sixth count. His offences were committed between 2010 and 2012 and he was dismissed from the MPS in January 2013 following a fast-track gross misconduct hearing.
When a woman reported a rape by a member of staff at Whittington Hospital, Mr Ryan signed the witness statements of four other members of staff concerning the allegation himself, without the witnesses reading or confirming their contents. On multiple occasions he falsified records to say that forensic analysis had come back negative, when in fact he had not sent the samples to be tested at all. He also caused a victim to be told, and himself told a suspect’s solicitor, that the CPS had authorised charges in a case when they had not.
The judge in the case found that Ryan had wanted to be in the “limelight” and work on the more interesting and prominent cases in the team. The Sapphire Unit was closed for three months after his misconduct came to light, in order to carry out investigations into these cases and others that he had been working on.
Mr Ryan’s appalling failings and deliberate wrongdoing have rightly been punished. His conviction is welcome news, not least because it is so rare to see police officers charged when complaints of serious misconduct are upheld, let alone convicted. Nonetheless, whilst efforts have been made to investigate the cases he worked on, his criminal conviction and the retrospective investigations cannot undo the serious injustice of his crimes and the fact that many offenders may have walked free.
Mr Ryan’s actions demonstrate a serious and shocking breach of trust, with major consequences for incredibly vulnerable victims who are reliant on the police to bring their assailants to justice. All too often victims of rape and sexual assault are fundamentally let down by the police as evidenced by a number of recent high profile examples, including that of John Worboys, the black cab driver who drugged and raped at least 12 women.
In 2015 the Court of Appeal upheld the Human Rights Act claims of two women who were tragically let down by the Metropolitan Police in the failed investigations into the actions of Mr Worboys who the police believe may have attacked over 100 women across the country.
In cases our civil liberties team acts in, we regularly see officers failing to take allegations of rape and sexual assault seriously, and instead blaming victims or disbelieving them. Police also regularly fail to properly investigate these crimes and victims see their attackers go unpunished, often with catastrophic and lasting impact on individual victims.
In one such case, a failure to send a DNA sample for analysis for many months meant that a man was free to commit two more serious sexual assaults, one on a 16 year old schoolgirl. In another, two police officers failed to even record a sexual assault as a crime at all, concluding that the woman in question was drunk and that nothing had happened which required investigation. In fact she was not drunk, but traumatised following the assault and suffering from concussion at the time.
In the context of a history of failings by Sapphire Units in London (and other similar units across the country), Mr Ryan’s actions, spanning as they did a period of years, can only damage the reputation of the police and further affect the confidence of victims in reporting similar crimes.
His actions however, reach a different level to the types of failings summarised above; he not only failed victims catastrophically, he deliberately falsified evidence to enhance his own career prospects. This is nothing short of chilling.
While it may be branded the work of one “bad apple” officer, and not connected to systemic failings, the case raises serious questions about the possibility of other rogue officers who are tasked with investigating the most serious crimes concerning highly vulnerable victims. Another recent conviction of a Metropolitan police officer suggests that this is not a one off occurrence.
At the end of last year a former police officer working in the specialist rape investigation Sapphire Unit, was imprisoned for committing misconduct in public office. In 2012 ex-police officer Ryan Coleman-Farrow was found guilty of 13 counts of misconduct in public office. He had been found to have fabricated evidence in rape investigations over three and a half years. He falsified witness evidence, lied about sending DNA samples to be analysed and entered false records to the police computer systems saying the tests had come back negative. He even lied to the CPS, telling them that a victim had dropped the charges in order to close a case.
He was described by the IPCC as a “rogue officer” and the head of the Metropolitan Police Service, Bernard Hogan-Howe, expressed disgust at the officer’s conduct and stated that “hopefully we can put this down to an abhorrent individual”.
It is of concern that there do not seem to be systems in place to identify the type of misconduct that these two officers committed in a timely way. In the case of Ryan Coleman- Farrow, the IPCC investigation found that supervisory systems would not necessarily pick up on an officer who has concocted evidence to cover their tracks.. This suggests that there are likely others, falsifying evidence as they go, with devastating consequences for victims. Their crimes may take years to come to light, if ever.
At present, as confirmed by the Worboys case, it is possible to bring civil claims under the Human Rights Act for police failures to investigate serious crimes such as rape and sexual assault but many victims will not even be aware that police have not done what is expected of them. What’s more, with the Government threatening to scrap the Human Rights Act, even this ability to hold the police to account could be taken away, leaving no other remedy to challenge such failures (unless there is deliberate wrongdoing, like in the case of DC Ryan).
It is of paramount importance that the police clean up their act when it comes to investigating allegations of rape and sexual assault, or the shockingly low reporting and conviction rates will only get worse. It is essential that specialist units are staffed with appropriately trained and qualified officers, who properly take evidence from victims at an early stage, support vulnerable and traumatised victims, and investigate promptly and effectively. Procedures must also be introduced to ensure that the likes of DC Ryan do not progress to the senior ranks of the force and certainly do not find their way into highly specialised units such as the Sapphire Unit. Officers must be supervised closely enough that any actions (such as falsifying evidence) are spotted at an early stage.
With budget cuts hitting police forces hard, this may be a pipe-dream, but unless more is done, then history will continue to repeat itself, and victims of the most serious and devastating crimes will continue to be let down.
By Sasha Barton & Joanna Fleck, Civil Liberties team.