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The Stephen Port victim inquests heard of the Met’s ‘institutional homophobia’. It’s not our first time at this rodeo. Dennis Nilsen and Colin Ireland were prolific serial killers, enabled by police prejudice, incompetence and an uncaring society. The same issues arose when Jody Dobrowski was murdered, and it’s a woeful narrative to witness.
‘Is the Met incompetent, or institutionally homophobic?’ The question is asked, like it’s an either/or scenario. A police force that collates evidence, and a media that’s reported the Met’s business for years, are seemingly unaware of a past in which queers, crime and law enforcement have a grim and lengthy history.
Being of a certain age, means rheumy eyes will have seen decades of serial killers and homophobic crimes. The brain is fogged with weary fury at yet another litany of police failures, toxic incompetence and the inevitable enquiries and recommendations.
Sounds of the ‘70s
I was about 7, when Peter Sutcliffe hit the public consciousness for killing women in the north-east. Red tops dubbed him the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ and feasted on the grisly details with fervid glee. Little Stewart read the graphic reports of sex work and violent murder in the family’s copy of the Daily Mirror.
It was an ugly, misogynist spectacle. Jim Hobson, a senior West Yorkshire detective, told a press conference at the time 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.”
I was 11 by the time they arrested and tried Sutcliffe in ‘81. My grasp of the issues came via a warped prism of media hysteria, Catholic confusion and a total absence of sex education. While the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ felt a far cry from my life, along came Denis Nilsen, to hack into my adolescent world.
Nilsen murdered up to 15 men between 1978 and 1983. He targeted the vulnerable: young men and boys (some as young as 14) who were (largely) gay, sometimes homeless, and occasionally, sex workers. Media coverage of the Nilsen case was an education of sorts.
End of innocence
The concept of male escorts, or ‘rent boys’ had never occurred to this kid in Kingston, ‘til Nilsen made the news. He plied them with booze, lured them to his home and boiled their heads on a stove.
Desperate for any clues to gay life, tales of runaway boys proved grimly fascinating, but those gobbets of flesh in the drains were a terrifying detail. Aside from the visions of gore, there descended a fear that my future might also feature lonely bedsits, shame and death in the drain.
Oh, and for added nightmare fodder, Dennis Nilsen was an ex-cop who worked in a Job Centre.
Thatcherism, mass unemployment and rampant homophobia gave Nilsen free reign to commit his crimes. The bleak aspects of the UK’s vibes were captured by Bronski Beat in the iconic ‘Smalltown Boy’.
The song chronicles how young gay men fled loveless families and fled to cities, searching for solace and life. What many found was destitution, violence and laws that criminalised their existence.
Body of evidence
Nilsen knew that nobody would miss these lost lads, and that gay men in particular, would stay quiet in a callous climate.
One of the detectives on the Nilsen case, Karen Hunt, believes Nilsen’s time in the Met, coupled with his choice of victim, gave him an open goal.
She said: ‘I swear to you, in Cranley Gardens, if the bodies had not got stuck in the drain and affected the people that lived below him, he would have killed for another few years.
‘The only reason he was stopped was because his activities imposed on someone else, it was nothing to do with the victims.’
Years later, the press had barely evolved, mixing middle class house-price chat with vintage attitudes.
“House of Horrors where serial killer Dennis Nilsen slaughtered rent boys and cooked them in the kitchen is sold for £300,000”
Daily Mail (7 June 2015).
Care in the community?
John Pape, a friend of Gabriel Kovari, Stephen Port’s second victim, said he tried to help detectives by passing on info he felt might be helpful.
“The only thing that makes any sense of how disturbingly incompetent this investigation was is prejudice, conscious or unconscious. And in my opinion, if this means the lives and deaths of young gay and bi men aren’t treated with significance and respect, I think that amounts to institutional homophobia.”
No way to slay
Pape has a point, and it’s not our first time at this rodeo. The Colherne in Earl’s Court was my local in the ‘80s. In 1993, Colin Ireland used the venue as a hunting ground for murder. The press dubbed him ‘The Gay Slayer’.
My fears of a sordid life that could end in murder became a reality. If anything, my adolescent dread had failed in its scope. The ‘gay plague’ of HIV/AIDS had swept into view. It offered yet another way to die, and be hated for living.
Ducking the issue
Colin Ireland’s first victim was 45-year-old theatre director Peter Walker. His body was still undiscovered two days later. On March 5, 1993, Ireland telephoned The Sun, to say he was concerned about the dead man’s dogs, left unattended in the flat.
One of the first detectives on the scene was Martin Finnegan, said at the time:
‘I think the gay community are sitting ducks in that respect. The lifestyle lends itself to exploitation.
Quack, quack, officer Finnegan, and your occupation lends itself to exploitation AND corruption, but it’s best not to judge, right? Police efforts weren’t helped by a March 6 judicial ruling that S&M play was illegal for consenting British adults.
Pride and prejudice
Giving evidence may have landed one in prison, so the gay community served understandable leather-clad omertà. When the press learned three of Ireland’s victims had been HIV positive, the media narrative suggested the killer was on a post-diagnosis revenge spree. That didn’t help either.
On 12 June, having killed four times, Ireland was irked by police ineptitude and made another anonymous phone call. He taunted them for not connecting the murders as the work of a serial killer:
‘Doesn’t the death of a homosexual man mean anything?’
Ironic, innit? The question society should have been asking itself, was pitched by a straight former soldier, who murdered gay men for kicks.
By the time, Jody Dobrowski was murdered on Clapham Common in 2005; I was in my thirties and Editor of GAY.com. Writing about the harrowing case led me to reporting on night patrols of cruising areas, with officers from the Met. It was as surreal, disturbing and awkward as you might imagine.
Despite deep suspicion of the police, and loyalty to my al fresco sex sisters, it was hard not to be impressed by the tree-side manner of those officers. In an effort to catch them out, I asked a burly, straight detective how he justified publicly funded operations for gays who wank in the bushes. Shouldn’t police resources be used for catching burglars and murderers?
Without pause, and with avid sincerity, he fired back,
‘Gay people pay their taxes, and deserve protection from crime. They aren’t breaking the law. And in case you forgot, there’s been a murder of a 24-year-old’
March of time
The Met seemed to have moved on. I’d even seen them at Pride events, dancing on a float. Pushing from within, playing a part in this slow evolution was Superintendent Steve Deehan, who transferred to the Met in 2001.
‘When I first came down, I got involved with the Gay Police Association and became their project officer. There was one project I wanted to land. That was getting permission to allow officers to participate in the Pride parade in uniform.
‘At that time they were allowed to participate, but not in uniform. That felt wrong to me, I had represented my previous force at Church services in uniform, and other community events. I believed the uniform belonged to the LGBT+ community as much as anyone else.
‘I also felt that participating in uniform would raise the profile of the police in the eyes of the community and raise confidence to engage with them and report homophobic crime.’
To this day, police presence at Pride remains a thorny topic. I’ve chaired a Queer Question Time debate on this theme, at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. It escalated from nuanced discourse to mutiny in a matter of minutes.
The perspectives of minority communities are key to this debate, but it’s hard not to respect Deehan’s efforts. For his Pride dream, Deehan pursued a long process of approaching every Chief Constable in the land to get their force’s permission.
‘Eventually, as you know, the Cops have participated in uniform up and down the country with Chief Constables and leaders of the National Crime Agency participating. The military then followed. Some Chief Constables still clearly oppose it.’
While uniformed officers at Pride didn’t jive with my energy, especially when smoking a J on an adjacent float, LGBT Liaison Officers remain one of the Met’s wiser moments.
The body of Jody Dobrowski was found on a Saturday. The following day, at The Royal Vauxhall Tavern, the legendary Dame Edna Experience (aka Jonathan Hellyer) gave an impassioned sermon to a distressed flock.
He spoke of community, looking out for each other and the power of love in a climate of hate. He then sang ‘Why’ by Annie Lennox. It was note perfect and devastating. I still blub at the memory.
Watching the detectives
Adding a practical element to the emotional RVT recital, Jonathan introduced the LGBT Liaison officer for Lambeth to the stage. We were implored to tap up PC Graham Alldus with any information that might help the investigation. Jonathan cracked jokes about truncheons and handcuffs, while wisely suggesting to avoid talking to PC Alldus if they were coming up on an E.
And there it was, the moment when it seemed possible to trust the police. If not the institution, then this handsome gay man, who happened to be in law enforcement and was happy to hang in gay pubs and be fondled by a drag queen on a Sunday afternoon. History was made. For me, anyway.
Crime and punishment
When I was a victim of crime, it was PC Alldus who proved amazing when it came to his attention. I’d have never considered going near a police station to report that crime, but Graham’s existence made it feasible. The perpetrator was eventually caught and sent to prison, so whatever way you look at it, that shit works.
LGBT Liaison Officer roles have since been replaced by ‘LGBT+ Advisors’. Their official Twitter account makes clear, ‘Don’t report crime here; call 101 or 999 in an emergency’.
The fact these watered down ‘advisory’ positions are voluntary speaks volumes. The Met’s LGBT community engagement is unpaid, additional labour, to be squeezed in when overworked officers get a free moment.
I don’t need ‘advice’ from law enforcement. And people should be paid for their work.
First Port of call
A friend of one of Stephen Port’s victims, said he wished there had been an LGBTQ+ liaison officer at Barking he could have contacted, ‘someone allied to the LGBTQ+ community, someone I felt that had some genuine insight into the issues surrounding this’.
When I spoke to ex Met officer, Steve Deehan this week, he cast a wary eye over the Port proceedings.
‘The murders occurred over a relatively short space of time with the bodies disposed of in the same location. As I understand it from colleagues, a large number of officers were subject to disciplinary proceedings, indicating systemic failures. The inquest has also found a significant number of failings by the Police over that period of time. The Met however has said there was no bias or prejudice involved? I question how that has been established.’
‘If these officers were so incompetent and that has been the cause, surely there will be evidence of that incompetence elsewhere in their work over the same period of time. If there isn’t, then how can the Met rule out prejudice and bias so definitively?
‘If this is about incompetence, then why have we not seen it elsewhere in the Met or in this borough? With regard to the majority population, as opposed to a minority group; I don’t think officers dislike people from the gay community, but I do think that some may hold some preconceived ideas about ‘lifestyle’
Dick on the line
The Met are once again on the back foot, and calls for Cressida Dick to resign are once again the lingua franca of outraged citizens. She should go, but the establishment, and institutions that ‘protect’ and serve society are also a reflection of the culture we live in. And they’re clinging onto Cressida.
The media play a large part in that self-serving feedback loop and while Dick’s departure might serve a crackle of satisfaction, it won’t change an instution that seems unable to learn from its mistakes.
I’m still haunted by the words of serial killer, Colin Ireland, whose 1993 question could also have been addressed to the police of Barking in the case of Stephen Port.
‘Doesn’t the death of a homosexual man mean anything?’
Criminologists have a term for this – it’s called hierarchies of victimisation– where people aren’t treated equally when they’re victims of crime, based on assumptions made on the basis of their socio-demographic characteristics such gender, sexuality, social class, age and ethnicity.
The Met keep tripping over this hurdle, and at best, it’s a failure and for some, it’s proving fatal.