Revealing that to people I had never told before was one of the hardest things I have ever done, but the experience of being 15, and everything that has happened in the years since, shaped my priorities as the county’s first Police and Crime Commissioner.
There is a huge amount more to do, but I am proud of the progress made during my nine-year term by the police and my team in tackling misogyny and male violence against women and girls.
When I stood down earlier this year, I was determined to continue playing a part in these efforts, and became Chair of Trustees at IDAS, one of the largest specialist domestic and sexual abuse charities in the north of England, as well as taking up a number of senior roles in the national policing sector.
I write today though in my own personal capacity. As a woman. As a victim. As a survivor of serious sexual violence.
Just over one week ago, the current Commissioner went on BBC Radio York and described the policeman (whose name does not deserve to be remembered), who abducted, raped and murdered Sarah Everard, a woman who most definitely does, as a ‘bad apple’.
He went on to say the solution to protecting women was for them to be more ‘streetwise’. His instinct was not to say the problem was with men attacking women, but that women should have a better understanding of the law.
Philip Allott’s words reveal a total absence of understanding of male violence against women and girls.
That is bad enough. But let us also not forget that York was Sarah’s hometown. Her family were mourning her with some of the most compelling victim statements I have ever read. They may have been listening to that interview, they may have heard what he said.
How dare someone in that position, a position of power, a position of trust, suggest that Sarah was in any way to blame.
Since Sarah’s murder, at least 80 women across England and Wales have lost their lives at the hands of men. Every day, women and girls suffer harassment, abuse, coercion and violence.
Every day, there are platitudes about what should change and what should be done, but so often nothing ever does. The reason it doesn’t is largely because of views like those held and expressed by the current Commissioner and others in positions of power.
In recent days, amidst the soul searching and comments that have shown people’s true colours, there have been two insightful articles from leading figures in policing.
South Yorkshire’s Chief Constable talks about the actions she is taking to ‘bring real change’ to society and cultures in her force – a strikingly different tone to the defensive narrative coming from the Metropolitan Police.
Meanwhile the West Midlands Chief Constable published a blog featuring an appeal to male officers – “the dads, brothers, husbands, grandads, partners and sons, who work with me in policing”.
He is calling for changes to society, as well as to policing, valuing difference and inclusion, “seeking more to join, so this is not a boy’s club”.
Their words are more candid and insightful than others, but it remains to be seen what concrete actions will be taken to begin to restore trust in the police.
A simple start would be to roll out Police Scotland’s move for lone officers to automatically volunteer a check of their credentials, rather than putting the onus on women to ask.
The Prime Minister is right in saying we have many existing laws that must be better used, but government also needs to do more – a pincer movement of enforcement and education.
For example, we need to look at the access to pornography – some of it graphic and violent – something which controls against are conspicuously absent from the forthcoming Online Safety Bill.
In addition, a very clear message that ‘low level’ sexual harassment is not acceptable could be given via a new offence of harassment in a public place, along with nationwide recognition of misogyny as a hate crime.
Rather than immediate criminal sanctions for such offences, we could consider educating perpetrators, similar to victim awareness and speed awareness courses.
This would augment programmes for perpetrators of domestic abuse, which evidence suggests can change behaviour and prevent reoffending.
We also need men to call out other men.
Which is why North Yorkshire’s Commissioner’s words were so troubling. He has retracted what he said but he cannot erase them.
He says he accepts he needs to learn and reflect deeply. But surely if he is only thinking that now, it is far too late.
How can women and girls across North Yorkshire ever believe him, when he may actually be thinking something very different?
Unlike for MPs, there is no recall function for Commissioners. We have a Police and Crime Panel, largely made up of local councillors from York and North Yorkshire, who are invested with a legal duty to scrutinise him.
Their meeting this coming week was to be face-to-face, but they have moved it online, depriving the Commissioner and Panel of the chance to get a clear sense of the anger and disgust.
Taking refuge behind a screen is cheap, cowardly, and hardly shows a willingness to reflect and learn.
We are judged through our actions. But we are also judged for our words. They matter because they influence what we do and what others do in our name.
Once said, they cannot be taken back, and I hope everyone reflects on that in the days ahead.
* Julia Mulligan is the former police and crime commissioner for North Yorkshire.
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