Protection On Paper Vs Protection In Practice: The Pepper Spray Argument

Written by Charlie Elizabeth Culverhouse

The best form of self-defence is to avoid danger at all costs, but the reality is this is not always an option for women today. The danger is not the stranger lurking in the alley or the weirdo in the parking lot anymore, it could be anyone, anywhere, at any time. Women have always prepared for the worst and follow an unwritten set of ‘guidelines’ to keep them out of harm’s way – ‘don’t wear your hair in a ponytail on a night out’, ‘don’t leave your drink unattended’, the list goes on. Despite all this, women are still attacked, and some want to take further steps to defend and protect themselves at worst and just feel safer at best. As we all start to return to hospitality venues, women everywhere are reminded that they are still to fend for themselves when it comes to protection.

Currently in the UK it’s illegal to carry a knife, a gun, pepper spray, or even a stick to protect yourself from being attacked. Anything that can be classed as an “article made or adapted for use to cause injury to the person”, will be prosecuted under the Prevention of Crime Act 1953, this includes the ‘adapting’ of keys by placing them between fingers. While the reasoning for banning the possession of a gun or a knife is clear, many want the laws revised to allow women to carry non-lethal self-defence weapons in case of an emergency.

Just a few months ago, every woman’s worst nightmare became headline news and the conversation surrounding women’s safety became a mainstream topic, for a while. Sarah Everard went missing on her walk home despite taking all the precautionary steps; wearing bright clothes, walking along main roads, staying on a phone call with a trustee. A week later her body was found, with a serving Met police officer being charged with her kidnap and murder. The event sparked a collective feeling of grief, fear and anger amongst the population and vigils were held across the UK to not only mourn but to bring attention to the dangers women are exposed to. 

These vigils were demonised before they began. Women were attacked at protests where they were asking to not be attacked. The arresting of a police officer for the attack and murder of Sarah Everard was now followed by police officers attacking mourners and peaceful protesters. After the government ruled these officers did not act inappropriately or in a heavy handed manner, they found the solution to keeping women safe on the streets to be more police officers. 

In the aftermath of protest, the Government seemed prompted to attempt some change and Boris Johnson headed up a crime and justice task force. Meeting for the first time on March 15th 2021, the task force released a report of new measures such as; recruiting 20,000 more police officers, introducing new stop and search powers, giving the police the resources needed to tackle violent criminals, and investing in new intervention programmes to stop young people committing crimes in the first place. Also published were vague plans to tackle violence against women and girls such as doubling the size of the Safer Streets fund to £45 million, which provides neighbourhood’s with better lighting and CCTV. Alongside this came a ‘promise’ for police forces to target parks, alleyways, routes from bars, restaurants and nightclubs as potential areas of concern in preventing sexual violence (was this not done before?). These measures are said to be being implemented before the reopening of night-life venues to ensure women feel safe when returning to ‘normal’ life. 

Alongside these measures, the task force introduced what they called a ‘complementary’ Domestic Abuse Strategy which aims to bolster police response to domestic abuse. New protective orders have also been created; Stalking Protection Orders, Sexual Risk Orders and Sexual Harm Prevention Orders, as well as new offences on Coercive and Controlling Behaviour, failing to protect a girl from FGM, and more. The maximum sentences for stalking and harassment have also been doubled to ten years. Despite the vague promises offered by the Task Force, a petition asking the UK Government to revise the firearms laws, making it legal to carry non-lethal self-defence weapons such as pepper spray, has been set up.  Before reaching 40,000 signatures, the government responded, “we have no plans to change the law to allow people to carry items such as pepper sprays or other weapons for personal protection” instead sticking to their protection on paper plans. So far there is no evidence that any of these ‘immediate’ steps have been implemented. 

Although women being failed by the justice system is nothing new. In 2016, Shana Grice reported her ex for stalking five times in a span of six months and was fined for “wasting police time” before she was killed. Susan Nicholson was killed by her partner, Robert Trigg, in 2011. Five years before he had killed his then partner Caroline Devlin. Neither death was ruled as suspicious despite Trigg’s decades long history of domestic abuse and violence against women. Ms Nicholson’s family fought the police ruling and hired their own experts to prove she was murdered because “the police would not listen”. It took nearly 6 years for him to be incarcerated and a further 3 for an independent inquest into the police investigation to be granted. Sussex Police ‘investigated’ its own officers three times but found nothing wrong with their handling of Ms Nicholson’s murder. The handling of the murder was not the only wrong-doing, if Trigg’s behaviour was taken seriously and resolved before he had the chance to kill, we would be telling a very different story. Trigg had a series of cautions under his belt and was known to the police for being violent towards women. The Nicholson family stated that the police should have paid attention to the violent pattern emerging and if anyone cared enough to join the dots, these murders could have been prevented. The family representative stated, “Bells should have been ringing. Susan wasn’t killed out of the blue”. 

Protection on paper does not mean protection in practice, as illustrated through the cases of both Shana Grice and Sarah Nicholson. Numerous inquests and inquiries have found that different police forces failed to protect women who were then murdered. This failure of police leadership on domestic and sexual violence is not simply about budget cuts, instead the choice to misinterpret or blatantly ignore written legislation. In March 2021, The Women’s Centre For Justice took the Crown Prosecution Service to court over their contribution in the devastating drop in rape convictions. The Women’s Centre For Justice argue that the CPS made changes to policy they use when deciding whether to prosecute serious sexual offences even though there was clear evidence that implementing new measures, as they did, carried a clear risk that prosecutors might start applying the evidential test too cautiously and prosecuting fewer cases. The judgement failed to hold the CPS accountable.

Between 2009 and 2017, on average 3,446 rape allegations were charged per year. In 2018, the annual amount of prosecutions had fallen by almost a quarter, and by 2019, it had dropped by over half only 1,758 prosecutions were pursued by the CPS, despite a total of 55,000 allegations being reported that year. In 2020, prosecution rates remained at a record low with well under 2,000 cases prosecuted, on average less than 3% of reported caseswent on to be charged. The importance of prosecutions in cases of violence against women is about more than seeing justice in that one case, as every time someone is held criminally accountable, there is a butterfly effect encouraging more women to come forward. When prosecution numbers are as low as they currently are, and that number is directly linked to the failings of the legal system, less women will pursue legal action against those who are a threat to women everywhere. 

Today a woman is killed by a man every three days on average. Yet still women are given no defence and no practical help. With self-defence seemingly not on the table of conversation topics in the Houses Of Parliament, and the Prime Minister’s task force set on legislative action over practical protection, it seems unlikely the male dominated conversation surrounding women’s safety will yield results. The legal system in the UK deters and actively prevents women from accessing justice. From failing to implement adequate preventative measures in violent crimes towards women, to fining women for wasting police time before they are murdered by the very person they are calling about, to excusing the crimes of men because of their promising futures, and finally to imprisoning women for killing their abusers in self-defence because the legal system ignored their cries for help. The UK law does nothing to improve the lives, or deaths, of women. 

Featured images courtesy of Unsplash and Pixabay. No changes have been made to these images.

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