Today is the first anniversary of the murder of Sarah Everard. Should we be placated by the forthcoming inquiry into the circumstances of the case? In my view, no, and this is a view shared by many of us that campaign against male violence towards women and girls.
Lawyers for the Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ) a feminist legal charity have launched a legal challenge against the Home Secretary Priti Patel, because, as its director Harriet Wistrich says, ‘The inquiry is not looking at the culture of policing. An inquiry into only one specific incident, albeit an horrific one, cannot come close to uncovering what that culture is and why and how it permeates policing – let alone what we can do to change it.’
When it comes to policing, change is slow. In the 1990s I worked in a domestic violence unit within a Metropolitan police station. I was in a civilian role, accompanying officers to 999 calls. The officers were supposedly highly trained skilled professionals, picked for the job because of their ‘natural empathy’ with the victims. Unfortunately, apart from one or two exceptions, these officers carried as many prejudicial views of the victims as their less ‘empathic’ peers.
In fact, some of the specially trained officers bent over backwards to empathise not with the women but with the perpetrators. Sometimes the conversations in the police vehicles would be very difficult to hear, with officers second guessing how much the complainant had been drinking, and in what way she might be to blame for the violence. The women were often judged for being angry, and I saw officers react with sympathy to the perpetrators. Unless the victims were in a bad enough state to be taken to hospital, the perpetrator was rarely arrested.
Of course, this all happened decades ago, but have things changed? Social media has enabled us to have a more direct insight into the mindset of some police officers today when we see their posts and their work WhatsApp groups are made public.
Perhaps the most egregious example was uncovered following the Sarah Everard murder, when it was discovered that her killer had swapped messages with other serving police officers in which they joked about rape and other forms of violence towards women as well as making vile misogynistic and homophobic comments.
But the problem goes far deeper than Wayne Couzens – he is a symptom of, rather than exception to, the hideous culture of misogyny within the Metropolitan police and elsewhere today. This is not about individual lone police officers, as suggested by the outgoing Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick, but rather institutionalised misogyny. Public concerns will not be allayed by a scrutiny into one case, as tragic and horrific as it is.
For this reason, the independent inquiry into the murder of Sarah Everard is inadequate as a measure to deal with the problems endemic to policing today. It is not a statutory inquiry, which means that officers will not be protected as whistle-blowers and have access to their own legal advice and support. It means that those in the know about the culture of violence, abuse and misogynistic attitudes will be compelled to keep quiet and not commit the mortal (and often severely punished) sin of breaking rank.
To describe Couzens as ‘one bad apple’ masks the reality. The problem is endemic male violence and a culture of acceptance of rape and domestic abuse. This is why we also see huge problems with the way some cases of domestic violence and sexual assault are policed, despite the efforts of feminists and others concerned with failures within our criminal justice agencies.
The case brought by CWJ is supported by 21 other women’s organisations. If the Home Secretary does not grant wider powers to the inquiry to both make it statutory and with a much broader scrutiny than the murder of Sarah Everard. The systematic failures cannot be dealt with by looking at a very exceptional and extreme case of police perpetrated violence. It has to examine the canteen culture that underpins it all and allowed Couzens to act with impunity.
It is crucial that male police officers absorb the message that they cannot get away with sexual harassment and assault. If they are found to have behaved in such a manner they should be kicked out of the force and made to face the consequences. A zero tolerance approach to commonplace, everyday misogyny amongst police officers would also put the spotlight on the kind of officers likely to escalate to criminality.
CWJ has recently issued and served a judicial review claim against Priti Patel setting out the full details of the challenge. They and are now waiting for her formal response which is due on 8 March. The claim will then be considered by the court as to whether they will grant permission. The case is unfunded, which is a disgrace, bearing in mind the huge public interest implications.
To address the problems that leads to police perpetrated violence towards women, there needs to be root and branch reform, not an inquiry into only one case. At present misogyny runs through the police service like a stick of Blackpool rock.