Netflix’s new docuseries on the Yorkshire Ripper has plenty of people expressing their outrage against the local police’s handling of the case.
The four-part series starts off as your average true crime documentary by recapping the Yorkshire Ripper’s crimes. It then dives into archival footage and survivors’ testimonies, revealing the blatant sexism of the West Yorkshire Police throughout their investigation.
The Yorkshire Ripper, who was later revealed to be a man named Peter Sutcliffe, murdered thirteen women and attempted to murder seven more between 1975 and 1980.
His killing spree spread terror throughout Northern England as the attacks continued over the years. It didn’t help that the investigation was thrown off course multiple times; once, by a hoax caller and letter-writer claiming to be the Ripper and again by the police’s refusal to give up their incorrect theory that Sutcliffe only targeted sex workers and did so out of hatred.
The police ran with this theory right from the murder of Sutcliffe’s first known victim, 28-year-old mother of four Wilma McCann, who was not a sex worker but killed in a red light district.
The police’s incorrect mindset was strengthened when Sutcliffe killed a second victim, Emily Jackson, who happened to be a working in sex work at the time due to a financial crisis. From then on, the police were convinced that the killer was trying to rid the streets of sex workers.
George Oldfield, who led the investigation, addressed the Ripper on TV saying, “There may be more pawns in this war before I catch you, but I will catch you.” That’s what these women were to detectives, disposable pawns.
In 1997, the Ripper’s fifth victim, 16-year-old Jayne Macdonald, was killed while walking home from school. Headlines stated this was Sutcliffe’s “first mistake.”
The clear implication of this statement: that sex workers were fair game
Jim Hobson, a senior West Yorkshire detective, said 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.”
Around the same time, a review concluded that two women who had claimed to have been attacked by the Yorkshire Ripper prior to Wilma McCann’s death but not believed when they came forward had been telling the truth. Both survivors were ignored at the time because they didn’t fit the police’s victim profile of working in the sex industry.
These survivors told police that their attacker had a local accent. Nevertheless, these accounts were ignored because the police preferred to believe hoax phone calls from a man with a Sunderland accent. For 18-months the police followed the hoax while disregarding evidence from these survivors that could have led to Sutcliffe’s capture.
At this point, the police shifted the responsibility of public safety onto women by saying that women should not be out in public after dark. In response to this ridiculous statement, the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group organized “Reclaim the Night” marches in numerous towns all across the United Kingdom on the night of November 12, 1977.
Women attending the marches held signs saying things such as “No curfew on women- curfew on men,” “It could be the man next door,” and “End violence against women.”
Despite the public outrage, the cops remained certain that they were taking the right steps to capture the Ripper.
One officer even said, “He doesn’t have to confess. The day we have him sitting across the table from us, we will know.” But police interviewed Sutcliffe nine times and he wasn’t even on their top ten list of suspects.
Sutcliffe himself said at his trial, “It was just a miracle they did not apprehend me earlier, they had all the facts.”
Unfortunately, Sutcliffe’s arrest in 1980 didn’t have an immediate effect on ending the sigma of sex work. This was made clear when the attorney general at the time, Sir Michael Havers, said of the victims, “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.”
Looking back on English society while Sutcliffe was on the loose and comparing it to now, feminist campaigner Julie Bindel said, “We still haven’t got the message about the violence inherent in prostitution; we still haven’t got the message about how women in prostitution are not disposable, that there are no innocent victims because there were no guilty victims.”