Last evening I watched all the episodes of Netflix’s true crime documentary, The Yorkshire Ripper Files. While the Yorkshire Ripper was named after another, famous serial killer, Jack the Ripper, the Yorkshire Ripper was eventually caught and sentenced. As a child of the 80s and living in the U.S., I didn’t have any knowledge of The Yorkshire Ripper. So, the four-part series provided a quick summary of the events that kicked off the manhunt for one of England’s most brutal and successful serial killers. What stood out to me about the series wasn’t the brutality of what Peter Sutcliffe did to his victims, it was how the police’s blatant misogyny caused more women to be attacked and murdered. When the police get tunnel vision, more victims fall under the train.
The complete and utter disregard for the women due to their social economic level truly astounds. Unfortunately, the police acted as police here in America do–if the victims are women and are perceived to be sex worker, than the police are painfully slow to react (see The Green River Killer). Throughout the investigation, the lead DCI Superintendent and the DCC reiterated that the victims were sex workers, when in fact, Wilma McCann several other women weren’t prostitutes. The police had non evidence to substantiate that they were–only the fact that Wilma left her children alone to go out drinking, and the other initial victim had been out at night.
The police developed tunnel vision. Once the theory that the serial killer hated sex workers was floated out, the police refused to leave it–even when evidence to the contrary arose. When Peter Sutcliffe murdered and attacked women who were college students or not living in poverty, they labeled those victims accidents. As if a serial killer doesn’t make logical and intentional choices. This was the case with Ted Bundy as well. Once the pattern of the victims having long dark hair, the police recommended women change their hair color. Many did. This also happened with gay men in Minneapolis with Jeffrey Dahmer. The police in that case didn’t react due to the police’s widespread belief in gay men being flighty, oversexed, and transient. The police’s recommendation to those in the marginalized community in which Dahmer preyed? Don’t go out at night. Don’t go home with strange men.
These tactic put the responsibility for being safe solely on the women (and gay men), which is akin to police explaining to women they should change the way they dress to avoid being raped. It’s ripe, foul misogyny that eventually led to more women in Leeds , in the case of the Yorkshire Ripper, being murdered due to the police’s inability to look beyond the one theory they had. They ignored surviving witnesses because they didn’t “fit” the theory.
To add insult to injury, the police superintendents failed to acknowledge the varying evidence in front of them, even when presented by one of their own. Detective Constable Andy Laptew had strong suspicions that Peter Sutcliffe was a strong suspect, if not, The Yorkshire Ripper, and he presented his evidence, a shoe print and Sutcliffe’s size, the fact that Sutcliffe’s license plate had been identified numerous times in the red light district in Leeds, and that Sutcliffe bore an uncanny resemblance to one of the surviving victim’s photofit. In the documentary, DC Laptew said, when he heard that The Yorkshire Ripper was in fact Peter Sutcliffe, “When I heard it was Peter William Sutcliffe, it was like someone punching me in the chest from the inside (Cameroon 2020). The detective constable brought his evidence and theory about Sutcliffe to his superiors after the 10th victim was found, and they ignored him. After that, three more women were murdered.
In fact, Sutcliffe had been interviewed nine times by police! After the trial, one of Sutcliffe’s coworkers said they had begun to jokingly call him The Ripper because he’d been down to see the police so often.
The documentary goes into great detail discussing the many ways the police failed to protect the women in Yorkshire. A large part of their incompetence sprung from a general misogynistic views. One journalist, a female reporter for the Joan Smith managed to get a copy of the Secret Report the Yorkshire Police had written and sent to the FBI. She secured it under The Freedom of Information Act here in the United States. What truly astounds in the police’s description of the victims (She was living with a Black man, Her house was filthy, etc.). The level of disdain and disgust permeates the read aloud parts of the report. How could the police clearly understand the plight of the women in their areas when they held such disdain for them?
And they didn’t.
When surviving victims spoke about their attacks, if they didn’t fit the victimology of being sex workers, the police disregarded them. They didn’t #believewomen. The result was a loss of lives. If they’d listened to eye witnesses earlier, they could’ve caught Sutcliffe sooner. The evidence was all there, they just couldn’t see it due to their tunnel vision. A tunnel built with mygonstic bricks. Reporter Joan Smith talks about her experiences in an article for The Guardian here.
The Netflix documentary does an amazing job of providing clarity around what must have been a truly scary and confusing time. It still is. Women victims of violent crime [i.e. rape, stalking, cyberstalking, assault, domestic violence] routinely are not afforded an ear that actually hears them when they report the incident to police. There’s a reason that the fictional character of Olivia on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit is a woman, and why she resonates with the audience so much. Yes, it’s fictionalized and a fairly tale, but it what women want. Seat more women (and more Black women) at the table, in police supervisory positions. That won’t stop rampant misogyny that colors the lens of male police officers or force them to #believewomen when they are brave and courageous enough to come forward.
Everyone in law enforcement should have to watch the documentary. It’s a lesson in not becoming married to one theory when working an investigation. It’s a lesson in not allowing one’s personal beliefs and bias to color their interpretation of the evidence. It’s a lesson in how to listen to others, even those ranked beneath you. In fact, it was two constables who actually caught the ripper–not someone on the task force. Just two hard working constables walking a beat.
The police’s misogynistic views greatly skewed their ability to look at the evidence in front of them without that bias.
And it cost women their lives.
It still does.