The call comes as the nation was left reeling after the disappearance and subsequent death of 33-year-old Sarah Everard.
The Londoner was walking home alone in the dark when she vanished – with the situation sparking discussions around the safety of women in public and the way police handle cases when they are reported.
Caylee Barnett, who launched the petition on Change.org, suggested the victims’ unit would be different to a normal police department. It would be made up of mostly female officers, who are specially trained in dealing with traumatic cases such as rape and sexual assault.
It would have a key focus of offering the victim support and compassion.
Thousands of people have backed the proposals, including one woman who was raped as a teenager. She bravely waived her anonymity to tell Metro.co.uk a dedicated unit could have dramatically improved her experience with the police.
‘A voice that is guaranteed to be heard’
‘We know now, in light of Sarah Everard, that sadly it is far too late to save her,’ Caylee said.
‘But for other victims, it is not too late. Having a special unit for victims would make it almost more comfortable for women to report something like this, as they know they don’t have to go to a normal police station to say it.
‘This wouldn’t be a normal victims’ support unit, this would be a special one for victims of assault and sexual harassment.’
‘We were having a conversation about how it would be a good idea,’ she said, ‘So I decided to set up the petition.’
She envisions the unit would consist of majority female officers – but not all, as she recognises men can also be victims of sexual assault and abuse.
In the introduction to her petition, Caylee wrote: ‘This is to ensure that any sexual harassment/sexual assault cases are dealt with as they should be, and to give those affected a voice that is guaranteed to be heard.
‘It gives victims a place to feel safe and tell their story knowing that they won’t be judged nor blamed for it.
‘If this petition is successful, the prime minister and the police will have no choice but to consider making a change, one that I’m sure most people would like to see.’
At the time of publication, the petition had been signed by more than 33,000 people.
It also comes after officers were also criticised for the way they treated women at a vigil in Ms Everard’s memory, although a review found they were ‘not heavy-handed’.
‘I know this will cost money but it would be giving people specialist support they need,’ Caylee urged.
‘All I can ask is that action is actually taken, rather than people just talking about it.’
She said the petition is important to her on a personal level too, as when she was younger she did not report something which happened to her as she thought nothing would be done about it.
‘I was not expecting to get so many signatures, and so many comments from women sharing their experiences and saying this kind of unit should be [put in place] worldwide,’ she added.
‘It felt very cold and there was a lack of care’
Emma Walker, 22, was raped as a teenager when she was living in Bradford, and said special victims’ units in police forces could have made all the difference.
‘I went straight to the police, literally within minutes of my assault, and I was given a specialist officer who dealt with me to begin with,’ explained the Londoner.
‘However this officer was there for a short period of time and I ended up just being taken to a general room to have my statement taken by two officers who weren’t specially trained. I think it was taken seriously but I felt a lack of care.’
She said she kept being passed around to speak to different officers which felt ‘uncomfortable’ and ‘scary’.
‘My phone was taken, my clothes were taken, I left with nothing but an uncomfortable grey tracksuit they gave me,’ she explained.
‘It felt very cold. I don’t remember any of the officers’ faces or names, as there were too many that came and went.’
Emma added the trauma of what happened to her of course impacted on her mental wellbeing and caused anxiety – but said her experiences with the police contributed to her ‘lack of trust and security’.
After three years of investigation Emma’s case was dropped – but was awarded a large sum of compensation by the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority.
‘It would be extremely helpful to know that every person in a unit was specially trained, as assault trauma is very serious and victims need to be treated in a specific way,’ she said.
‘It would have made me feel more secure, more cared for, and would have allowed me to stay in one place rather than be passed around and see so many different people.
‘Sexual assault has a crazy long term impact, and survivors do not need the extra trauma of reporting it.’
‘I still don’t go anywhere on my own at night’
One woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, told Metro.co.uk about how she was attacked in the 70s by a man who forced her to get in his car.
She highlighted the need for officers dealing with cases of sexual assault to be specially trained – and not just female.
‘The policewoman I spoke to at the time ignored my report saying I had led the man on,’ she explained.
‘I have felt since that this was unfinished business as to this day I don’t go anywhere on my own at night.
‘I think it would be helpful to have someone who understands what it feels like to be assaulted feels like to deal with my case.’
‘I wouldn’t have a criminal record’
Another woman, who is 40 and lives in south Wales, said that in recent years she received two criminal convictions for assault after she called 999 for help after being attacked by a man in her own flat. She claims mostly a lack of understanding of the process on her part led to her convictions.
‘I think if a women’s unit had existed at the time, things would have turned out very differently,’ she said.
‘For a start I wouldn’t have a criminal record for assault, that should have never gone to court.
‘My ex attacked me and I defended myself. The only reason I had a conviction was because I – unknowingly – signed a document where I admitted to assault. This would never had happened if there was a women’s unit with me for the entire time.’
She added if specially trained officers were sent to reports of assault or violence against women, there would be ‘no need to handcuff and gag anyone’.
‘The entire process of getting falsely arrested is stressful enough, surely arrest is not the only way to help a woman after she calls 999,’ she said.
‘Victims are often not taken seriously’
Jo Smith, who runs a domestic abuse group, added she believes a unit like this is ‘necessary’ not only for victims of sexual assault in public, but also sexual abuse which leaves lasting effects.
‘Victims are often not taken seriously by the police which then leaves many feeling scared and unable to lead normal lives as PTSD or great anxiety.
‘It is debilitating to the victim with many scared to leave their home. Learning to control panic attacks and to address the trauma via breath work, EMDR, hypnosis therapy and more would be a life force for victims as well as their children.
‘Women are left with no support relating the police or court cases.
‘Children that witness these behaviours have been linked to all addictions, knife crime, self harm and suicide so making this project accessible will save most definitely save lives.
Jo, who was raised in trauma herself and has extensively researched the healing process, said she is seeing huge rises in domestic abuse year-on-year, particularly throughout the coronavirus crisis.
She added: ‘To break this chain it requires a specialist unit. A safe space is most definitely required to protect today’s growing abuse rate plus the growth of suicide that is related to this.’
Jo said similar therapy is given to members of the Army returning from war, and believes abuse victims should be entitled to the same.
‘We share that concern’
A Metropolitan Police spokesperson said: ‘We fully appreciate how recent events have heightened concerns about violence among women in London and we completely share that concern.
‘All officers are absolutely committed to doing everything we can to keep women and girls safe, and to feel safe. Every day officers are working closely with partners to deliver a safe environment for women and girls to go about their daily lives without the fear of becoming victims of violent crime.’
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