‘The Met’s Reputation is More Important than My Safety’Can the Sarah Everard Murder Inquiry Rebuild Women’s Trust in Policing?
Women’s groups have raised concerns that the narrow confines of the Angiolini Inquiry – combined with a failure to grapple with women’s safety – mean that lessons won’t be learned
The Government has been branded a “disgrace” after it failed to make statutory an inquiry into how a serving Metropolitan Police officer with a history of indecent exposure was able to abduct, rape and murder 33-year-old Sarah Everard last March.
The Home Secretary this week published the terms of reference for the inquiry. Her announcement, and the failed vote in the House of Lords to set up a statutory inquiry, came as another Met Police officer, David Carrick, was charged with 29 offences against eight women, including six counts of rape.
Sarah Everard’s murder sent shockwaves across the UK, with women up and down the country using the hashtag #SheWasJustWalkingHome to express their anger about women’s safety on the streets.
Wayne Couzens was later found to have used his status as a Met Police officer to falsely arrest Ms Everard as she walked home after seeing friends.
Phase one of the inquiry will be non-statutory – a process which, while it can provide greater flexibility on procedure rules, means it cannot compel witnesses to give evidence under oath or to produce other evidence relevant to the inquiry’s work. This creates a risk that uncooperative witnesses or core participants could impede the inquiry’s progress.
The terms as set out by Priti Patel focus on Couzens’ behaviour and history. It will examine the circumstances and decision-making relating to “his vetting and re-vetting, including whether any potential risks and/or red flags were missed”.
However, some women’s organisations have expressed concerns that the narrowness of the inquiry and its non-statutory nature means that it will miss patterns of behaviour and culture that leave women at risk from other police officers.
Debaleena Dasgupta, solicitor at the Centre for Women’s Justice, said: “To prevent something like this happening again, which is the stated aim of the Home Secretary, this incident cannot be viewed in a vacuum. The abduction, rape and murder of Sarah Everard was an extreme and horrific event, but sadly Couzens is not the only officer whose behaviour is a danger to women and where the conduct escalated.
“As an organisation which examines police perpetrated abuse of women, we are aware of many cases of police officers abusing women and failures to take action to prevent such abuse and remove perpetrators from the police.”
Byline Times has reported that more than half of Met Police officers found guilty of sexual misconduct kept their jobs.
Jamie Klingler, who organised a vigil in London following Everard’s death, told Byline Times that “without making it statutory, the inquiry has no teeth”.
The terms of reference states that the findings of phase one of the inquiry will inform the Home Secretary’s “consideration of what further, broader, issues arise for policing and the protection of women should be considered in phase two of the inquiry”.
A Lack of Trust
The murder of Sarah Everard and the subsequent response from the Met Police exposed issues of trust and access to justice when it comes to violence against women and girls. In the London boroughs of Wandsworth and Lambeth, where Sarah Everard was walking home, confidence in the police fell from 77% to 59% and 71% to 58% respectively according to figures published last March.
Only one in 20 rape allegations in the capital lead to a suspect being charged. The London Rape Review, published in December, found that rape victims felt “belittled” by the Met and were “not believed”.
The report found that 65% of cases led to the victim withdrawing their allegation with a further 25% ending in “no further action”. Women also shared how the police treated them as suspects, not victims. There was “no level of understanding and I was made to feel like I was an inconvenience”, one interviewee told the review’s authors. Another shared how the “experience of the police has put me off ever engaging with them again”.
“The whole experience from my disclosure was and remains as traumatising as the rapes themselves”, said another victim.
The rape review came 12 years after the conviction of John Worboys, the black cab driver who raped multiple women. Two of his victims won a human rights case against the Met Police after it was ruled that the force had failed to carry out an effective investigation into Worboys. The women’s lawyer, Harriet Wistrich, said “a lack of belief” among police officers had failed his victims.
In June 2020, the murders of Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman in a park in north-west London undermined trust in the Met when it comes to dealing with violence against women of colour. The family accused the police of not taking them seriously, while the Independent Office for Police Conduct found that the force did not follow its own missing person policies.
Two officers were later found guilty of misconduct in public office, having taken photos of Ms Henry and Ms Smallman’s bodies before sharing the images on WhatsApp along with sexist and degrading language.
Trust in the Met was further undermined after the aggressive response to a vigil organised in memory of Sarah Everard, with the organisers threatened with a £10,000 fine for breaching lockdown rules if the event went ahead.
Women gathered in Clapham Common to lay flowers, while some stood up in the bandstand to give speeches. The response from the Met included arrests and women being held on the ground and handcuffed. Activists have accused the force of a hypocritical response when it comes to policing lockdown violations after it said that it would not investigate the recently revealed Downing Street parties held during Coronavirus lockdowns by members of the Government.
“We went and negotiated with the Met,” Klingler told Byline Times. “We offered options like a memorial line or having two different sessions. While we were offering these solutions to the police, they sent out a press release nationally saying it was unlawful. It was so humiliating.
“On the Monday after the vigil, I personally asked [Met Police Commissioner] Cressida Dick what she would have done differently if she knew 48 hours before what she now knows. And she said ‘nothing’. So nothing was learned from it.”
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Following Wayne Couzens’ sentencing, the Met Police was roundly criticised for offering safety advice to women such as hailing down a bus or knocking on a stranger’s door if they felt unsafe on the streets.
It also advised women to question or even run away from a police officer if they felt threatened. Such advice, women argued, focused on changing women’s behaviour rather than tackling mistrust of the Met and the attitudes and actions of violent perpetrators.
Now, the Home Office has backed a women’s safety app which – once again – focuses on women’s behaviour rather than men who commit rape and sexual violence. The app allows users to track a friend’s journey home, alerting them if they stray from an agreed path or if they don’t move for three minutes.
Writing in the Guardian, journalist Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett said that the app “simply codifies the safety behaviour in which women already engage: ‘text me when you get home’.”
The Centre for Women’s Justice issued judicial review proceedings last month to challenge the failure of the Home Secretary to place the inquiry on a statutory footing and its very narrow scope. “To view this issue through the lens of Wayne Couzens alone, means the opportunity to fix the systemic issues that leave women vulnerable to these officers, will be missed,” the Centre said.
“The Met needs to open their doors and admit the issues with racism and misogyny, because if they don’t admit it, they won’t be able to change anything,” Klingler told Byline Times. “It has to be open, it needs to relook at training, vetting and recruitment processes. Right now, the Met’s reputation is more important than my safety. Until that priority changes, nothing will get better.”