Socialist Worker

Police sexism failed women killed by Peter Sutcliffe

by Sarah Bates
Issue No. 2731

Millgarth Police Station in Leeds where the investigation was conducted

Millgarth Police Station in Leeds where the investigation was conducted


Mass murderer Peter Sutcliffe died in hospital while an inmate in Frankland prison in County Durham on Friday at 74 years old.

Known as the Yorkshire Ripper, Sutcliffe was serving 20 life terms for murdering 13 women and attempting to kill seven others in the 1970s.

The women Sutcliffe was convicted of murdering were Wilma McCann, Emily Jackson, Irene Richardson, Patricia Atkinson, Jayne MacDonald, Jean Jordan, Yvonne Pearson, Helen Rytka, Vera Millward, Josephine Whitaker, Barbara Leach, Marguerite Walls and Jacqueline Hill.

Richard McCann, son of Wilma McCann, said Sutcliffe’s death offered “some kind of closure” to victims’ families.

“I am sure a lot of the families, surviving children of the victims, may well be glad he has gone and they have a right to feel like that,” he said.

Sexism

They were victims of institutionalised, systematic and despicable police sexism—as well as Sutcliffe’s violence.

At points in the investigation, victims who didn’t match the cops’ views that he was exclusively targeting sex workers were disregarded. This meant they disregarded a host of evidence which may have led to his capture sooner.

For instance, the police ignored an accurate description of him by Marcella Claxton, who was attacked by him and escaped in 1976.

They thought Marcella was attacked by a different man because she wasn’t a sex worker. Sutcliffe then remained at large until 1980, murdering another 11 women.

It wasn’t the only time women were ignored. A fake tape, featuring a man with Geordie accent confessing to the murders threw the police off course for months.

But Tracey Browne, who also managed to escape from Sutcliffe, knew her assailant had a Yorkshire accent. She was also dismissed by cops.

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Despite being arrested nine times during the course of the investigation, Sutcliffe was released each time.

There was also a deeply sexist attitude about the victims that clouded the entire hunt for Sutcliffe, and this continued through to his trial.

There was almost an understanding attitude from the police.

Jim Hobson, a senior West Yorkshire detective, told a press conference that the killer “has made it clear that he hates prostitutes. Many people do. We, as a police force, will continue to arrest prostitutes. But the Ripper is now killing innocent girls.”

Sir Michael Havers, attorney general, said in a speech at the trial, “Some were prostitutes, but perhaps the saddest part of the case is that some were not. The last six attacks were on totally respectable women.”

John Robins, chief constable of West Yorkshire police offered a “heartfelt apology” to the families and survivors of Sutcliffe.

He said sorry for the investigation's failures and apologised for the “additional distress and anxiety caused to all relatives by the language, tone and terminology used by senior officers at the time in relation to Peter Sutcliffe’s victims.”

Robins added that, “Thankfully those attitudes are consigned to history and our approach today is wholly victim focused, putting them at the centre of everything we do.

Claims

Yet the statistics do not match his claims.

The number of prosecutions for rape fell to a record low last year, despite more women reporting them than ever before. The drop in convictions is partly because police forces are not passing as many cases on to the Crown Prosecution Service.

And the abuse suffered by young women at the centre of child sexual exploitation in Greater Manchester and South Yorkshire continued because victims were not treated seriously by police.

These attitudes about who are victims in a sexist society, are not a thing of the past but remain prevalent and unchallenged in the legal system today.

The apology on Friday is not enough—the police must be held to account for their fatal failures in the murders of 13 women.


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