Comment: The gay community, the police and the question of trust

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Whether we come into contact with police as a victim of crime, as a witness to an event, due to our own conduct or for other reasons; most of us have an opinion as to the service we expect from them.

In reality, most of us never want to come into contact with police – we don’t want to be a victim of crime, report a loved one missing, be arrested, be stopped for speeding or be caught up in witnessing an incident. However, whilst we don’t desire contact with police, we do have an expectation that police will serve us “without fear or favour” ensuring we are protected, supported and reassured. We rightly expect the highest standards of professionalism from our police service.

Historically, there has been a lack of confidence between LGBT communities and police. In 2002, Professor Gregory Herek reported “Victims’ concerns about police bias and public disclosure of their sexual orientation were important factors in deciding whether to report anti-gay crimes, as were beliefs about the crime’s severity and the likelihood that perpetrators would be punished.”.

Richard Wells, the former Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police, retired in 1998 and stated many police forces were “still failing to tackle homophobic attitudes within their own ranks”.

He said that this failure “undermines gay confidence in the police and hinders police action against anti-gay violence”. A 1998 GALOP survey found that 47% of young gay people reported being victim of anti-gay violence, although only 19% of victims reported this to police, and only 34% of those said officers were supportive. 13% found police to be homophobic and hostile towards them.

In 2009, Stonewall published a hate crimes report connected to homophobia, which found LGB people often express a significant concern about fear of crime. The report also found that community having confidence to report crimes can be impacted on by police actions to reassure. Some measures that affect confidence e.g. inaccurate or incomplete media portrayals of incidents are beyond the control of police. One conclusion of the Stonewall report was that “Improving communication with LGB people, particularly over high-profile cases, is important in raising community confidence”.

The 2008 Gay British Crime Survey found “Only 6% of LGB victims report someone was charged with homophobically motivated offences and only 1% report that someone was convicted of the offence.” This is a very low conviction rate in comparison to other hate crimes or crime in general.

The Gay British Crime Survey and other research suggested there was no clear picture why some cases reported as homophobic hate crimes proceeded through the criminal justice system and some not. However, 25% of victims who reported homophobic hate crimes to police maintain that they were not recorded as a homophobic incident according to Stonewall research.

There have been some good examples of police working with LGBT communities to deal with individual crimes or fear of crime. Not all of the good work is recent; some can be seen from historic news reports. The Metropolitan Police and Gay Police Association won international recognition for how they handled the investigation of the aftermath of the 1999 Admiral Duncan bombing by David Copeland. Although, to be fair, there was considerable criticism by Outrage! and others about the decision not to publicise a suspicion police had that the LGBT communities could be targeted by perpetrator(s) of the Brixton and Brick Lane bombings.

It’s clear that police have recognised there are improvements that can be made, learning from incidents such as the Admiral Duncan bombing, murders of Robyn Booth, Michael Boothe and others; along with concerns expressed in reports such as the British Gay Crime survey. Examples of changes include LGBT liaison officers in some police services, confidential third party reporting arrangements, and specialist guidance on hate crime such as the ACPOS Hate Crime Manual.

Observers of the criminal justice system have noted improvements, as former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said: “The criminal justice system – police, prosecutors and the legal profession – has changed. Lesbian and gay people can now expect better treatment than ever before.”

Ben Summerskill stated “There have been some distinct steps to improve by the police and the criminal justice system to tackle hate crime in recent years, but it is clear that far more needs to be done. 75% of those experiencing homophobic hate crimes and incidents still don’t report them to police, convinced there is no point.”

Jacqui Smith herself acknowledged: “While people are still anxious about being themselves in the areas they live we still face challenges. In the 21st century no one in Britain should ever feel under threat of verbal or physical violence just because of their sexual orientation.”

As part of this research into policing of LGBT communities across the UK, Freedom of Information requests were made of all police services. Questions were posed regarding tackling homophobic hate crimes.

The table below details figures provided by some police services in relation to hate crimes in 2009/10 and 2010/11:

Comment: The gay community, the police and the question of trust

It can be seen that where figures are available that homophobic crimes are detected at a lower rate than hate crimes in general.

This pattern continued in other police services. It is noticeable that not all police services have easily accessible statistics in relation to recorded allegations of transphobia.

There is no consistent trend nationwide as to whether overall hate crime or homophobic hate crime is being reported more or less. Whilst the level of hate crimes reported to the Metropolitan Police appears stable, those in Devon & Cornwall have risen and those in Dyfed Powys have dramatically fallen.

Various police services were asked to comment on their experiences dealing with hate crimes and how they sought to increase confidence in reporting hate crime.

Inspector John Jackson from Devon & Cornwall Constabulary Diversity Unit told us: “Over the years we have worked closely with local support organisations to encourage the reporting of incidents, whilst recognising the sensitivities that exist for many communities including issues of trust in police in general. … We believe we have responded positively to serious crimes against people from the LGBT communities with some very successful outcomes and feedback”.

Whilst a spokesperson for Lancashire Constabulary said: “We have our own on-line reporting system on the Lancashire Constabulary website to report hate crimes. This is in addition to the third party reporting centres across Lancashire and the True Vision website.” The spokesperson also explained that Blackburn police are carrying out a trial programme where victims of homophobic/transphobic hate crime receive a visit form a gay police officer as follow up, and that Lancashire Constabulary have a presence on gay websites to build confidence and awareness.

Police Service of Northern Ireland Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris, explained: “Crimes motivated by hostility to an individual’s characteristics cause a great deal of harm and fear among victims and communities and they have no place in a modern society. The UK is among world leaders in the way that it responds to hate crime, but there is still much work to do. One of our greatest challenges is to reduce under-reporting of hate crime. Only by increasing reporting can we gain a full understanding of the extent of hate crime and for this reason that I urge people to report incidents to their local police service or report online at”.

Inspector John Jackson also told us: “People don’t report Hate Crimes/Incidents for many reasons. These include, fears that they will be ‘outed’, fears that they will not be taken seriously, fears that they may be subject to reprisals, and fears they will receive a very poor service. Some of these fears we can alleviate and will take consideration of all the circumstances surrounding the issue. What I can say, with regard to service delivery, irrespective of concerns, if people do not report crimes/incidents I can guarantee they will get zero service.”

The Crown Prosecution Service has said they are determined to support prosecutions of hate crimes. Barry Hughes, Chief Crown Prosecutor in the South West of England said that “Hate crime is damaging, it’s corrosive. We want the public to know we will support victims” and states he intends to prosecute all hate crimes that can be taken to court.

A Metropolitan Police spokesperson said: “In the MPS, whilst we are hesitant to celebrate a steady number around reporting of homophobic matters it does show that LGBT people continue to report crimes/incidents. third party reporting and assisted reporting offers victims and witnesses of hate crime the opportunity to make indirect contact with the police.

“For years the MPS has been finding ways to encourage LGBT people to report crimes so we embrace the statistics and working relationships we have with LGBT organisations. Worthy of note is that third party and assisted reporting sites have followed the same trend around numbers as MPS. In the MPS we know under reporting of hate crime is a significant issue and we are resolutely committed to tackling all forms of hate crime and remain robust ensuring that hate crime perpetrators are held accountable for their actions.”

A spokesperson for Derbyshire Constabulary said: “We are pleased that the number of hate crimes reported to us has increased because we have worked hard to improve public confidence in this area. For the last eight years the total number of crimes reported in Derbyshire has reduced so the increase in hate crime reports is encouraging. We recognise that a lot of hate crime is not reported which is why we are trying to raise awareness and encourage victims to have faith in the local police.”

The South Wales Echo recently reported that there was a 40% rise in reported homophobic crime over the last three years in South Wales. Responding to this Inspector Nigel Crates of South Wales Police said it was a result of improved confidence of victims to report incidents.

Andrew White, the Director of Stonewall Cymru, said there was still a large number of crimes going unreported. He said: “Stonewall’s research clearly shows that three in four homophobic hate crimes and incidents in Wales still go unreported to the police, often because victims do not feel that the police will do anything about them. Whilst some progress has been made, police forces still need to do much more to ensure all gay people in Wales feel confident to report homophobic incidents.”

It is clear that many police services have worked with local LGBT communities to tackle issues of confidence, ensuring hate crimes can be investigated. It is possible that in some police services this may explain the rise in hate crimes reported. It is also clear from comments from many observers of the criminal justice sector that there remains a lack of trust between some LGBT people and the police. Many LGBT people do not believe they will be taken seriously by the police, sometimes as a result of personal experience.

However, there remain insufficient statistics to demonstrate that there is any real and meaningful improvement – and figures such as those of detected crimes do not help resolve the concerns communities have.

Police services need to continue rebuilding confidence with the LGBT communities, and LGBT people need to challenge police by reporting hate crime when it occurs; hate crime should never be accepted.

It is likely to be a lengthy process before LGBT communities trust the police fully in handling hate crimes, and, given the nature of the policing role, we may never be able to talk of ‘complete’ trust.

Stuart Ross is a regular reader of, qualified paramedic and a former police officer.