This weekend, authorities in Australia announced they'd recovered the body of 29-year-old Irish expat Jill Meagher after the woman disappeared while walking home from a bar blocks away from her suburban Melbourne apartment. As the case captivated and horrified the country, more details emerged. Turns out, the man who has been arrested for Meagher's rape and murder wasn't a stranger to women along the busy strip of road from which the woman disappeared. He'd been creeping women out for months, and in at least one incident, threatened to strangle one of Meagher's neighbors. So why was nothing done? Because the police, once again, did not take threats of violence against women seriously.
Meagher seemed to vanish into thin air from a busy strip of road during the early morning hours of September 22nd, and authorities were stymied until Closed Circuit TV cameras from a clothing store caught footage of a hoodie-wearing blonde man pacing back and forth in front of the store and engaging Meagher in conversation. Buses, a tram, and several passersby would have seen the man, or Meagher, but none of them have spoken to police. The last footage of Meagher alive is the woman taking her cell phone out of her purse and making a call, ostensibly to disengage from the man in the hoodie.
During the ensuing search for her, authorities and the media weighed in on how what happened to Meagher could have been prevented. She shouldn't have been walking home alone from a bar! (Because the number one cause of getting murdered is walking home from a bar without a chaperone at night!) The country needs more Closed Circuit TV's! Why didn't her coworkers who were still out drinking insist on accompanying her to her doorstep?!
But the reason Meagher was killed wasn't that she was walking home alone or that there weren't enough cameras recording her every move; it was pure police incompetence and an unwillingness to take other women's reports of feeling threatened seriously.
Meagher murder suspect Adrian Bayley, it seems, has been prowling the area for months. According to one 23-year-old New Zealand woman, 9 months ago, Bayley confronted her along the same stretch of road from which Meagher disappeared, threatening her. The next time she saw Bayley, he whispered that he would strangle her. The woman reported the incident to police and asked where she could purchase pepper spray to defend herself, but nothing was done. According to some news sources, other women have been attacked in the area recently as well.
And that's just what's been reported. Australian media personality Catherine Deveny wrote an impassioned blog post before Meagher's body was found describing a scary encounter she'd had with the same man, urging women with information to report their experiences to CrimeStoppers. Deveny says that several months back, she was riding her bike in the area when someone who looked a lot like Adrian Bayley tried to block her path and force her to stop and then lunged at her as she rode past. Deveny wrote that she didn't report the incident because she didn't want to be a paranoid overreacting hysterical lady. But some women don't report instances like this — menacing encounters with aggressive men — because reporting incidents like this can often seem like more trouble than it's worth.
It's a matter of being damned if you do, damned if you don't. If you're frightened by a creepy or unsettling encounter with a man, you can wade through the sea of tangled red tape involved in reporting it, you can subject yourself to official ridicule ("Welcome to New York, sweetheart!" Guffaw!), you can spend several hours or days or weeks doing this. Or, you can not report it, not waste your time, and have the same end result: police do nothing.
Almost every woman I've asked about this has had an awful experience they tried to report to police only to have authorities respond with a resounding shrug, or an experience that upset them but they didn't bother to report. When my colleague Jenna saw a man waiting on the opposite subway platform begin masturbating in front of her during the wee hours of the morning last September, she talked to the station agent three times, and called the police only to wait for more than 45 minutes for them to arrive before she just gave up and left. Last week, an anonymous woman recounted her frustrating experience trying to get a man who groped her on the street arrested (she saw him three separate times before police were able to apprehend him, and was forced to take time off work in order to identify him and press charges). The man who would later go on to rape a woman in Hudson River Park was just last year convicted of rubbing up against women and ejaculating on them in the subway.
Still more women are daunted by the process of filing a police report, or cynical about authorities' desire to do anything about gateway sex crimes like public masturbation and groping. The 73-year-old bird watcher who was raped in broad daylight in Central Park had seen her attacker masturbating in public just the week before and photographed him. My colleague Katie was groped while vacationing in a foreign country, and didn't bother going to the police because she knew it would take forever and that no one would do anything about it. I was attacked several years ago in my building in Chicago but didn't report what happened to me because the last time I'd dealt with the Chicago Police Department, they locked me in the back of their car while they watched an episode of The Wire and then one of the officers proceeded to call me and ask me out on dates almost every day for the next month (Also, I was super addled on various substances and paranoid that if I reported a crime, something bad would happen to me in the hands of the police). That summer, a man who looked a lot like the guy who attacked me began attacking women in another neighborhood in the city. Other friends and colleagues have been subjected to or seen men rub up against women on the train and done nothing out of fear of being labeled paranoid or oversensitive.
If police actually took "minor" sex crimes more seriously and if the process of reporting an incident weren't so daunting, it would be easy to blame women for failing to report crimes and contributing to a chain of events that ends with a body in a shallow grave. But can you blame us for our cynicism?
These are crimes that should be taken seriously. Most men who graduate to rape and murder start small and build. They don't just go out one day and decide, You know what? Rape. Going to get me some of that rape. They start by threatening, by exposing themselves, by peeping, by groping.
Calling crimes like Meagher's murder "random" is disingenuous. Meagher may have been a stranger to her assailant, but authorities had plenty of chances to stop him.