Police need to learn the lessons of the Rotherham sex abuse scandal by making sure they are responding to emerging forms of crime instead of focusing only on satisfying public opinion, the town’s crime commissioner has suggested.
Dr Alan Billings said the 1,400 victims of child sexual exploitation (CSE) identified in Rotherham over 16 years “were let down by officials who were responding to a public demand for certain types of crime to be prioritised.”
In a column for the Church Times, the South Yorkshire police and crime commissioner wrote: “At that time, it was acquisitive crimes — burglary and car theft. Attention and resources were focused there; targets and bonuses were used.”
Writing that the Rotherham scandal offered a warning about “the place of public opinion”, he added: “By and large, the police delivered what they were asked by the public to do. They did not allow emerging crimes to distract them.
“Of course, the police need to listen to public opinion, but they should not be afraid to help the public think more widely about how the social landscape is changing, and new crimes are emerging.
“In the Gospel accounts of the Passion, Christ is judged by ordinary people, whose attitudes and behaviour are shaped by the culture of the groups to which they belong. We are no different.
“Professor Jay held a mirror to the behaviour of those who could not find a perspective from which to judge how they found themselves responding to child sexual abuse. We see that now. The next step for us is the more difficult. What are we currently not seeing?”
The scale of child sexual exploitation in Rotherham by gangs of largely Asian men was revealed on August 26 last year by Professor Alexis Jay in a report that shocked the country and prompted a number of high-profile local resignations.
The outrage provoked by the report stemmed from the sheer scale of offending that it outlined and the horrific details included of what had been going on in the town between 1997 and 2013.
South Yorkshire Police came under heavy criticism in the report for ignoring concerns about widespread abuse of young girls in Rotherham.
And Dr Billlings, who has since set up a panel for CSE survivors, said in his column that the attitude of police in Rotherham “reflected those of the bigger collective, society itself”. He said: “I am firmly of the opinion that we all played our part in what went wrong, not only in South Yorkshire, but across the country. The girls who were being groomed were seen by society — by all of us — in a particular light.
“They were wilful, knowing, difficult, out of control, disrespectful of all authority. They were what my mother would have called ‘little madams’ who brought it all on themselves.
“This mindset lay behind the response of so many, and represents a collective failure. There is no inspection regime that deals with this.
“The fact that a crime was being committed, and that these girls were children, could be suppressed in such a culture. With a few honourable exceptions, we could not see it for what it was. We failed to understand the insidious nature of grooming.”
He added: “The value of the survivors’ and families’ group is that it helps to dispel some of these misconceptions.
“So, for example, the young women, who are now in their twenties, make it clear that what they were looking for when they fell into the hands of their abusers was not “a good time”, gifts, alcohol, or drugs — something that I hear said, even now — but love, romantic love.
“They thought that they had found it with these men who loved them, or so they believed — older men, who knew what love was because they paid them attention and were affectionate. Eventually, the hideous truth dawned; but by then, they were trapped.
“The group also dispels the notion that all those who were abused were from disadvantaged families, or in care. Many were, but some were not. Girls from any social background may know the allure of the groomer.
“This is important to recognise, because the nature of grooming is changing. What happened on the streets of Rotherham and other towns is now migrating to the internet and social media. New types of grooming are happening between young people of a similar age.”