How the Nicola Bulley case shows how police still have a long way to go when it comes to women, says Christa Ackroyd
I decided not to on the advice of the very same man I sought to emulate. “Because Christa,” he told me, “you won’t achieve all you are capable of in the police force. Women have a long way to go before they are truly accepted as the talented individuals they are and recognised for the part they have to play.” And so I took his advice. It’s a long time since we had that conversation and women have risen to the forefront of policing across the country. And they have done us proud in their fight for equality.
But could I truly advise any young woman to join the police after events of the past year or so? Like so many I was appalled at the handling of the tragic case of Nicola Bulley just over the border in Lancashire. It was a classic case of victim blaming and it should never have played out as it did. Never. We should never have been told what police believed had happened to Nicola and why until they knew what had happened to her and how. Whatever the outcome of the various police investigations into the handling of case, I will never accept that it was right that Nicola’s ‘vulnerabilities’ were laid bare. She was vulnerable.
That was all the public needed to know. We did not need to know about ‘significant’ problems with alcohol. We certainly did not need to know about her struggles with the menopause in alarming detail in order to justify the police conclusion that they would find her in the river. That should never have been her legacy, not least for her two young daughters who in years to come can Google their mummy and read in graphic detail about her struggles. She is to them, and always will be, so much more than that. To those who responded to the criticisms of Lancashire police by saying the press and the public were screaming for answers I would say this. It is not up to the police and their press office to feed the mob.
As for the press they were there to report the facts as were given to them. That’s how it works. In this case they were given too many. And if there was ever the slightest chance that Nicola was alive and reading about her private demons on every front page how would disclosing them ever persuade her to come home? The police in my view gave out highly personal information to justify their handling of the case. And that was wrong. As for the suggestion it was to prevent so called friends and neighbours from ‘selling’ stories about her private life, newspapers just don’t buy those types of stories any more. And it was up to the police to manage the rumours and the speculation surrounding them not to add to them.
So here’s what should have happened. They should have been brave enough, if they felt it necessary, to take the journalists into their confidence, to ask them to put down their pens and switch off their recording devices and cameras and tell them of the serious issues which led them to their conclusions. And ask them under no circumstances to report them. You may laugh and say how could they trust journalists? I would simply answer by saying they have managed delicate information in this way hundreds of times in the past. This whole case it not about trusting reporters, it is about trusting the police to manage sensitive information in the hope of bringing a loved one home. Sadly, I genuinely believe trust in the police is at an all time low. There is a recruitment drive which I understand is not going too well with the suggestion of low wages being the reason vacancies are not being filled. May I suggest it is more of a question that people don’t want to join an organisation where change has been promised and hasn’t happened.
Look at the Met police where a murderer and a rapist have remained in post when the warning signs were there. Where serving police officers have made misogynistic comments about women on WhatsApp groups which should never have allowed in the first place. Where police officers felt empowered to commit their gross acts, killing, raping and taking photographs of dead women, because they believed they were untouchable because of their badge of office. It is horrific. And still it goes on. Eight officers from the Met are being investigated for making derogatory comments about Katie Price’s disabled son Harvey on another WhatsApp chat. What is happening to policing in this country? Is there no one we can trust?
Well the answer is there is. The vast majority of the men and women in the police service are good, dedicated officers many of whom are equally appalled at what has been going in their midst. But they must also now be braver, call out injustice and bad practice when they see it or even when they suspect it. Attitudes towards women and the vulnerable must be addressed and it is no good me saying it or politicians saying it, it must come from within. And, dare I say it, it must come from women who simply have to be listened to when they report fellow officers for sexist behaviour and worse. What saddens me is the cases involving the Met police and the investigation in Lancashire were being overseen by women. And while I accept that their intentions were honourable it is up to senior women in charge to empower others to be part of the solution. And that means asking them to be their eyes and ears in the force as well as on the beat. And also telling a grieving stressed family in Lancashire that there is no need to go into details about someone’s struggle with the menopause and their medication because it is simply too much information. It is for them to know, and them alone if they believe it forms part of their investigation.
We have come on leaps and bounds in recent years in bringing out into the open the struggles some women have with the menopause. This case highlights there is much more to be done, worse still it threatens to put it back into the world of judging a woman because of it. The menopause is not something to be ashamed of. After all half the population will go through it. So would I suggest the police as a career for young women to enter? On the evidence of the last year surprising I would say absolutely. Change, I am afraid, can only come from within and that means we need more not fewer women to represent us if we want a police force which truly reflects the whole population. Above all women must be treated with respect both inside and outside the service.