by Jean Calder
The 1993 racist murder of Black London teenager Stephen Lawrence was followed by a bungled police investigation. This led to a high profile campaign by the Lawrence family and a public inquiry by Sir William Macpherson in 1998. What emerged was that police investigating the murder had stereotyped the young Black victim, failed to gather evidence and proceeded on the assumption that he or his companion must have acted improperly or illegally. The police could or would not recognise racist assault. Macpherson’s eventual finding that the Metropolitan Police was “institutionally racist” sent a depth-charge through British policing and led to changes in national policing policies and practice.
Over the years there have been improvements in police attitudes to race and racist crime. Hate-crime laws have provided some protection to minority ethnic groups as well as several other groups subject to discrimination – and have enforced a change of attitudes.
However, one group of people hate crime legislation does not protect, despite the discrimination and targeted violence they face, is women. As a consequence, there is little recognition of the need to address institutional sexism within the police and the way in which it may impact upon the investigation of crimes targeted at women. The tragic death of Shana Grice provides a stark example.
Shana Grice, a white nineteen-year-old living in Portslade, on the outskirts of Brighton & Hove, was murdered on 25th August 2016. She had had a brief relationship with Michael Lane, a mechanic and former work colleague. He was physically larger and heavier than Shana and, at 27, a lot older. When she rejected him, he harassed and stalked her mercilessly. When it became clear he would not be able to bully her back into a relationship, he slit her throat, disabled fire alarms in her flat and set light to her body. Immediately after he killed her, he stole cash from her bank account and then went to check his lottery ticket. He had told a friend “She’ll pay for what she’s done.”
Shana was a courageous young woman who had reported Lane’s behaviour to family, friends and an employer – and had repeatedly complained to the police, at least five times in the last seven months of her life. The police failed either to take her seriously or to protect her. In fact, when Shana reported Lane had assaulted her by pulling her hair and trying to grab her phone, the police fined her, blaming her for wasting police time and “making a false report”. No action was taken against Lane.
Thereafter Lane followed Shana, fitted a tracker on her car, publicly humiliated her, slashed her tyres, and intimidated her with anonymous calls. In the month before he killed her, Lane stole her keys and broke into her bedroom to watch her sleep. He admitted what he had done, but instead of charging him, the police issued a Caution. The next day Shana reported several calls from a withheld number, including one with heavy breathing, but the police told her there were no further lines of inquiry and the case would be left on file. Two days later she told the police Lane had followed her, but the police deemed the incident “low risk” – despite it being well known that the most dangerous time for an abused woman is when she flees a relationship.
The jury took just two hours and twenty minutes to find Lane guilty. Sentencing him to Life in prison with a minimum of 25 years, Judge Nicholas Green said he had no doubt the killing was premeditated and carried out in revenge. He went on to severely criticise Sussex Police, saying of Shana “..tragically when she sought help from the police she received none.” In a fascinating echo of the Macpherson report, he said that the police had “stereotyped” Shana Grice, when she reported Lane, treating her as a “wrongdoer” and Michael Lane as a “victim”.
The Judge stated “there was seemingly no appreciation on the part of those investigating that a young woman in a sexual relationship with a man could at one and the same time be vulnerable and at risk of serious harm.” He commented that the police’s position had had three “potentially serious consequences”, namely: that the police treated all further complaints with “scepticism”; that Shana Grice was reluctant to report further incidents; and that Lane believed it “most unlikely” that the police would do anything to stop him if he continued.
Shana’s grieving mother Sharon Grice said: “We firmly believe her murder could have been avoided if her fears had been taken seriously by police. Michael Lane had been harassing, stalking and pressurising her for over a year. Her life became a nightmare which we believe had affected her mental and physical health.”
There will be the usual investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). It may well add to the long list of IPCC reports highlighting police failures in respect of stalking and domestic homicide. It is to the credit of Bernie O’Reilly, Deputy Chief Constable of Sussex Police, that he has already apologised to the family. However, there is no reason why the public should take on trust his assurance that “We have thoroughly reviewed all aspects of how we deal with cases of stalking and harassment and we have now taken on the learning and our approach is more robust.” Police Commissioner, Katy Bourne’s call for a full review of all stalking cases in Sussex is therefore necessary and welcome. However, it is not enough.
This is not just an issue about stalking – or sexual assault, domestic homicide, or any other of the crimes of which women are the usual victims – but about police attitudes to women. The question to be addressed is to what extent sexist prejudice within Sussex Police force may have protected the abuser and exposed his victim to further attack.
Lane terrorised and then murdered Shana, finally desecrating her body by fire. His offences were rooted in sexism, revealing an obsessive desire for control over this very young woman and a deadly refusal to accept rejection. He lied repeatedly, persuading the police that he was not an abuser, but the victim of an unfaithful girlfriend who made malicious and false allegations against him. It is what some weary domestic violence workers call the “slag defence”, where a male perpetrator avoids detection, a finding of guilt or an adequate sentence, by appealing to prejudices about women. Defence lawyers use it in homicide trials, where the reputations of dead women are regularly trashed, to the immense distress of their loved ones.
Sussex Police do need to get their policies and procedures right, but unless they confront the sexism and prejudice within their force, amongst male and female officers alike, poor practice will continue – and there will be many more victims.
I hope that Shana Grice’s courageous family will call for a public inquiry into her death and the role that institutional sexism and associated neglect may have played in it.