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A Small Step for Women’s Safety in Policing is Not One Giant Leap

Sascha Lavin reflects on the news that the College of Policing will introduce harsher sanctions for police accused of abusing women

Photo: PA Images/Ian West/Alamy Stock
Floral tributes left at Clapham Common Bandstand, during a vigil in memory of Sarah Everard Photo: PA Images/Ian West/Alamy

A Small Step for Women’s Safety in Policing is Not One Giant Leap

Sascha Lavin reflects on the news that the College of Policing will introduce harsher sanctions for police accused of abusing women

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Last September, former police officer Wayne Couzens was given a whole-life sentence for kidnapping, murdering and raping Sarah Everard. The court heard how Couzens, after clocking-off from his Metropolitan Police night shift, had used his warrant card and handcuffs to falsely arrest Sarah Everard as she walked home. 

In the days leading up to his sentencing, the Byline Intelligence Team published a three-part investigation highlighting the extent to which police found guilty of sexual misconduct evaded punishment.

Scouring publicly available misconduct documents and analysing data obtained under Freedom of Information laws, this newspaper revealed that Couzens was not just one bad apple – the whole barrel was spoiled. 

Our investigation exposed a culture of cover-ups, in which police officers were allowed to abuse women with impunity.

We exposed how two-fifths of police officers found guilty of sexual misconduct over a four-year period to 2020 were not removed from their jobs. Couzen’s colleagues in the Met were at even less risk of being dismissed – more than half kept their jobs after being found guilty of sexual misconduct.

In the same period, 14 police officers across England and Wales were found guilty of abusing their position for sexual gain, targeting vulnerable women they met through their policing duties, and a shocking 16% remained in post. 

Now, the College of Policing has issued new guidelines to crackdown on police officers who are abusive to women. Under these rules, police officers who harm women, either on or off-duty, will be more likely to lose their jobs. 

While these rules are welcome, they will not magic-away the decades of damage done to women’s trust in the police.


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He Had A Place in Policing 

Announcing the updated guidelines, the CEO of the College of Policing – the professional body for those working for the police service in England and Wales – asserted that “there is no place in policing” for officers who are violent towards women and girls. 

But a series of scandals suggest otherwise. 

There was a place in policing for Couzens, who – six years before he raped and murdered Sarah Everard – was accused by a member of the public of driving naked from the waist down. Kent police investigated the claim but decided no further action should be taken, allowing Couzens to continue to serve with the Civil Nuclear Constabulary and later with the Met Police, where he was employed until July 2021 – four months after Sarah Everard’s murder. 

There was also a place in policing for the police officers at Charing Cross police station who sent misogynistic messages on a WhatsApp group. Under the thinly-veiled guise of ‘banter’, they shared violently sexist messages, including: “Getting a woman into bed is like spreading butter. It can be done with a bit of effort using a credit card, but it’s quicker and easier just to use a knife.” One male officer sent a message to his female colleague saying: “I would happily rape you.” 

Of the 14 officers investigated for their participation in the WhatsApp group, only two were barred from working for the police again. 

And there was a place in policing for the 1,080 police officers and staff who remained in their jobs despite accusations of domestic abuse. In a clear example of the patriarchy in practice, the ‘boys club’ closed ranks and colleagues protected their own instead of the survivors: eight out of 10 police officers kept their jobs after allegations of domestic abuse were made.

A Lack of Trust 

The College of Policing’s new guidelines are welcomed, but tough sanctions for police officers who abuse women should be a minimum requirement – not applauded as revolutionary. 

Women already do not trust their cases to be taken seriously, because male violence against women and girls is not always respectfully investigated by the police. Just recall how two Metropolitan Police officers took photographs “for their own amusement” of Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman’s bodies. Stripping the murdered black sisters of their dignity in death, the pictures were then sent to colleagues.

This inappropriate attitude towards victims of male violence against women and girls is not specific to the Met Police nor is the impunity granted. The Byline Intelligence Team revealed that, nine out of 12 police officers across England and Wales who behaved unprofessionally in cases involving sexual harm, or failed to properly investigate sex crimes, kept their jobs between 2017 and 2020. 

When the police are the perpetrators, women face an additional barrier to reporting. Only six out of 104 women who reported police-perpetrated domestic abuse would feel confident to report again, according to a police watchdog report. Many women do not  have confidence in reporting a police officer’s violence to his colleagues, knowing the force has a history of protecting their own. 

With such low levels of trust, it’s little wonder that rape is de facto decriminalised. Although record levels of sexual violence survivors are reporting, fewer than 20% of rape victims currently report attacks to the police. Of those that do, 1.7% see their rapists prosecuted.

‘Met Police’s Reputation is More Important than My Safety’Can Women’s Trust in Policing be Rebuilt?

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A Long Wait for Change

It has been 533 days since Sarah Everard’s murder catapulted police violence against women into the spotlight, and these new guidelines are the first tangible step to making forces across England and Wales safer for women. 

Instead, in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder there was a confusing combination of denial and empty rhetoric from the police. 

Responsibility was placed on women, not the perpetrators, when the Met advised women to wave down a bus and challenge plain-clothes police officers if they are approached. The then Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dick persistently ignored the culture of misogyny within the ranks, clinging to the ‘occasional bad ‘un’ defence. 

Home Secretary Priti Patel promised more police with more powers on the streets despite – as Sisters Uncut put it – the fact that “the police are institutionally violent against women [and] handing them more powers will increase violence against women”.  

For too long police forces across the country have not taken allegations made by women against male officers seriously enough. These new guidelines are a step in the right direction, but they are not enough.  

If it is to be truly the case that there is no place for perpetrators in the police, then we need to examine and remedy the reasons why policing attracts some men who want to “exert and coerce” vulnerable people, as the national police lead on violence against women, Maggie Blyth, admitted. 

In the wake of Couzen’s sentencing, the Government announced the Angliolini Inquiry to look into Everard’s murder. But to demonstrate that systemic misogyny within the police is recognised and taken seriously, the inquiry must go much further: it should be statutory and consider all police violence against women. 

For women to begin to trust the police again, more – much more – needs to change to unpick the damage done by the police to the people they should protect. 

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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