Only around 75 people in the UK are serving a whole life prison sentence. Last week, the murderer of Sarah Everard became one of them. The severity of the punishment was in part due to Wayne Couzens exploiting his position as a police officer in order to carry out his horrific attack. In his sentencing remarks, Lord Justice Fulford stated:
“In my judgment the police are in a unique position, which is essentially different from any other public servants. They have powers of coercion and control that are in an exceptional category. In this country it is expected that the police will act in the public interest; indeed, the authority of the police is to a truly significant extent dependent on the public’s consent, and the power of officers to detain, arrest and otherwise control important aspects of our lives is only effective because of the critical trust that we repose in the constabulary, that they will act lawfully and in the best interests of society. If that is undermined, one of the enduring safeguards of law and order in this country is inevitably jeopardised.”
For many ethnic minority Londoners this will feel familiar. By the time of the Brixton riots in 1981, trust between the Metropolitan Police and black communities in London had largely broken down. The Scarman Report into the riots found unquestionable evidence of the disproportionate and indiscriminate use of “stop and search” powers by the police against black people.
Thirteen years later, the botched investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence led Sir William Macpherson to conclude that the Met was “institutionally racist”. Even following that landmark report, published 22 years ago, it is still true that a black person in London is three times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than a white person.
Now it is women, and not only in London, who find themselves questioning whether the police are a help or a threat. Nationally, least 15 women have been killed by serving or former police officers since 2009, and the BBC has found that over 800 allegations of domestic abuse have been made against police officers and staff in the past five years, of which only 43 ended up being prosecuted.
It has been revealed that Couzens exchanged misogynistic, racist and homophobic material with five other police officers in a WhatsApp group, suggesting a widespread culture of prejudice. Susannah Fish, a former chief constable of Nottinghamshire, who suffered sexual assaults from colleagues, has described “a toxic culture of sexism” in the police. Of course, policemen are responsible for only a tiny percentage of the total number of crimes committed by men against women in the UK. But as Lord Justice Fulford pointed out, given the extraordinary powers police are able to exercise over the public, women need to feel not just “mostly” safe, but completely so.
In the days that followed Couzens’s sentencing, the Met compounded the reputational damage it had sustained by advising women confronted by a lone male police officer to ask him questions such “Why are you here?” If they believe they are in imminent danger, women should seek assistance by “shouting out to a passer-by, running into a house, knocking on a door, waving a bus down or if, you are in the position to do so, calling 999.”
This is doubly bad advice. Leaving aside the absurdity of expecting buses to come along at the exact moment a policeman happens to be assaulting a woman, it places the onus on women to be self-confident and knowledgeable enough to interrogate a policeman, and to then effectively resist arrest if she is not satisfied with his answers.
Many women would find this daunting, but it is particularly problematic for women of colour. Figures suggest that Met officers are four times more likely to use force against black people than other ethnicities. A serving officer told the BBC this was because police found black people “more threatening and aggressive”. Many black women, therefore, will be wary of antagonising police officers for fear of the consequences.
At the same time, police telling women it is legitimate to run away from them quite obviously makes their job in catching genuine criminals a lot harder – after all some women do commit crimes.
The fundamental problem is that policing in a democracy requires trust and consent, otherwise the public will not report crimes or co-operate with solving them. Evidence from the United States shows that in the months following the murder of George Floyd by a white policeman, calls to the police plummeted.
For a whole variety of reasons, women find it hard enough to tell the police about an abusive partner or to report a sexual assault. If they now have to contend with the thought that male police officers could exploit their position to cause them further harm, this could be the difference between deciding to report a crime and not doing so. Perpetrators of violence and abuse against women are the only winners from this situation.
An independent inquiry is (of course) to be launched into why Couzens was able to remain in the Met despite concerns about his behaviour. But given Macpherson found the Met to be institutionally racist 13 years after Scarman, women are entitled to be sceptical as to whether this will produce any immediate results. Hence, there have been calls for Met Commissioner Cressida Dick to resign, including from veteran Labour MP Harriet Harman.
Some have argued that this would be scapegoating an individual rather than addressing institutional reform, and that misogyny does not exist only within the Met. But unless someone is seen to be held accountable, it is difficult to build confidence that the Met is taking the abuse of women seriously, and it will be difficult to demonstrate to individual officers that there are consequences for continuing to tolerate misogyny within their ranks.
Accountability is a particular problem with the Metropolitan Police because the service acts both as London’s local police force and carries out national functions, such as counter-terrorism. The Commissioner is therefore answerable both to the Mayor of London (who Londoners get to choose) and the Home Secretary (whose appointment Londoners have no say in). In practice, Mayors can force out Commissioners they no longer have confidence in, as happened with Sir Ian Blair during Boris Johnson’s mayoralty, but clearer accountability would put more pressure on the Mayor to sack a Commissioner they judge to be performing inadequately.
Wayne Couzens may have been exceptional, but he existed within a culture and an institution which allowed him to become a police officer, to stay in his post even after allegations of indecent exposure, and then abuse that position to commit a horrific crime. As a result, many women – like many people from ethnic minorities before them – will feel hesitant about approaching the police for help, with criminals being the main beneficiaries.
If this is to be a watershed moment for the Met, as the Macpherson Report was, then a wide-ranging programme of reform needs to be put in place to win back public trust. But, equally, the clearest signal that this will not be brushed under the carpet would be the resignation of a Commissioner who has been unable to rid the force of a misogynistic culture during her time in office.
Christabel Cooper is a data analyst and a Labour councillor in Hammersmith & Fulham. Follow Christabel on Twitter.
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