Dame Cressida Dick yesterday announced a review of “standards and culture” into London’s Metropolitan Police stating that she wants the force to regain the public’s trust[i]. Cressida Dick, the Met, and the Police as a whole, face a long uphill battle to regain the trust of survivors of sexual and domestic abuse.
It has only been five days since the sentencing of Wayne Couzens, in those five days we have seen even more cases hit the press that demonstrate incredibly concerning, institutionally-embedded, cultural issues in Britain’s Police. Less than 24 hours after the sentencing, it was announced that two active Metropolitan Police Officers had been placed under investigation for contributing to a WhatsApp group chat, which included Couzens, messages that were allegedly racist and misogynistic in nature[ii]. The officers under investigation were not suspended from duty by the Met but placed on restricted duties. Sergeants often describe being restricted to desk duty as an adequate punishment due to its demeaning nature however it means that those who have engaged in misconduct are still serving officers and in receipt of police powers.
Perhaps it does not need to be said, but Police officers continuing their jobs while being investigated for sharing misogynistic and racist messages with a convicted murderer does not instil confidence that this is a police force that takes allegations such as this seriously or understands how to build back trust. This is not the first time officers have been investigated for their conduct in relation to the wider Sarah Everard case. Back in March the public learned that a Met Officer involved in the search operation for Sarah was removed from their duties after allegedly sharing an “inappropriate graphic” with colleagues[iii]. Eleven other officers involved in the case and other adjacent investigations related to Couzens are also under scrutiny for their conduct by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC)[iv].
The problem of Officers’ inappropriate messaging is not unique to the Sarah Everard case either, in June 2020 two officers were suspended amid allegations that they took selfies next to the dead bodies of Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry. Mina Smallman, the mother of the victims, had previously complained about the Met’s initial response stating that she had to organise a search for her daughters herself[v]. This is a police force that has demonstrated they do not exercise the appropriate level of concern for victims of crime and has proven on multiple occasions that they cannot be trusted to properly investigate cases of violence against women and girls.
Just 3 days prior to Sarah Everard’s kidnap, rape and murder the Met were handed CCTV of Couzens exposing himself to a McDonald’s worker at a drive-through[vi]. The investigators failed to identify him as an officer, despite the car number plate being linked to his name and address on the DVLA website. Couzens’ is also linked to another case of indecent exposure in Kent where he was serving as an officer in 2015 however no further action was taken and he went on to join the Met in 2018. It is shocking to think that a police officer could expose themselves on CCTV and no action be taken but this is in keeping with the statistics on indecent exposure. Police recorded 10,775 cases of “exposure and voyeurism” in the year to March 2020, only 123 (1.14%) resulted in immediate custody and 435 (4%) resulted in guilty verdicts[vii]. The victims’ commissioner for England and Wales, Dame Vera Baird, said indecent exposure was rarely taken seriously by police.
If the Met is to rebuild trust and confidence it must first accept the reality that the criminal justice system does not view sexual violence as a serious crime, and nor do the government[viii]. This is felt by victims with only 16% who experience sexual assault by rape or penetration reporting to police, 38% of those who did not report stated that they did not think the police could help and a quarter thought the police would not believe them[ix]. 57% of those who do report withdraw from the investigation, often due to the nature of the investigation itself and the time it takes[x]. Of the remaining investigations only 1.6% result in a suspect being charged for any crime[xi].
David Carrick, a police officer from the same unit as Couzens was yesterday remanded in custody after being charged with rape that occurred in September 2020. It is unknown when the rape was reported, however knowing the nature of police investigations it can be assumed that Carrick would have been on duty whilst under police investigation and only suspended from post once charged, he is set to appear in court on 1st November[xii]. Two other colleagues of Couzens were jailed for sex crimes just one month after he killed Sarah Everard bringing a total of 26 colleagues having committed sex crimes since 2016, 5 of which were committed on duty[xiii]. Offences included rape as well as the possession of indecent images of children. 150 other serving officers hold convictions for offences ranging from assault to drugs. This disproves the remark of Couzens being just ‘one bad apple’ and shows that this issue is clearly endemic rather than coincidental and we are only skimming the surface of a police force rotten to its core as every new investigation uncovers more and more wrongdoing by serving officers.
During the media rounds prior to Couzens’ sentencing former Met DCI Simon Harding said Police Officers ‘do not view’ Wayne Couzens as a Police Officer and he ‘should never have been near a uniform’[xiv]. For those officers it is irrelevant if they do not view Couzens as an officer or if he should never have been near a uniform, because he was. Couzens was a police officer up until he pleaded guilty to Sarah Everard’s murder. Couzens was a police officer despite two allegations of indecent exposure[xv]. Couzens was a police officer because the police do not take sexual violence seriously. He used his police powers to arrest Sarah Everard and used his police issued belt to strangle her before setting her body alight and dumping her remains in a pond in Kent. He was nicknamed “the rapist” by colleagues, which is only now being investigated following his conviction[xvi]. A former colleague in 2002 was also aware that Couzens was into violent pornography, confirmed by Sir Tom Winsow, Chief Inspector of Constabulary who stated he was aware of Couzens’ reputation as “the rapist” and [he] “also had allegedly a reputation in terms of drug abuse, extreme pornography and other offences of this kind”[xvii]. A former friend of Wayne Couzens claimed that at age 23 Couzens groomed a 14 year old into a relationship[xviii]. Due to the age of consent this relationship can only be described as child sexual abuse. Despite this several colleagues of Couzens’ spoke in support of him by providing positive character references at his sentencing[xix].
Questions must now be asked of police vetting procedures. Since 2010 771 Met Police employees have faced allegations of sexual misconduct. 88% of which were against serving Police Officers. Out of these allegations only 156 resulted in any formal action and only 83 were dismissed from the force. In the same period 163 Metropolitan Police Officers were arrested for sexual offences. 78 were later charged however only 38 resulted in a guilty verdict. Only 18 of those found guilty were imprisoned[xx]. In other research by Byline Times it was found that 52% of officers retained their jobs after being found guilty of sexual misconduct between 2016 and 2020[xxi]. They also found that between 2017 and 2021, 800+ allegations were made against police employees, with a recent article. In 2018 the Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ) submitted a super-complaint highlighting failures by police when women submitted reports of being sexually and/or domestically abused by a serving officer. Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary and senior representatives of the IOPC and the College of Policing then further investigated and found 246 incidents in the Metropolitan Police alone[xxii]. David Gilbertson, the Former Scotland Yard Deputy Assistant Commissioner described police officer perpetrated domestic abuse was an ‘epidemic’[xxiii].
Inspectors of the Police watchdog warned in 2019 that 35,000 police staff had not been properly vetted, estimating that 37% of the Metropolitan Police do not have the correct vetting[xxiv]. Perhaps this combined with internal cultures contributed to Met police breaching fundamental rights of those they arrested at the vigil in Clapham for Sarah Everard[xxv]. The heavy-handed manner in which the vigil was policed only further eroded trust in the force.
Cressida Dick has much work to do, and appointing someone to carry out an independent inquiry into the Met’s cultures and standards does not go far enough. Nor does Home Secretary Priti Patel’s announcement that there will be an inquiry into the murder of Sarah Everard, an inquiry that is not statutory and does not yet have a set terms of reference or an appointed chair[xxvi]. Survivors of violence against women and girls will be watching particularly closely to see if these commitments bring any real improvements. For now, the prevailing opinion of police is not trust or respect, but fear. Cressida Dick attempting to address those fears by suggesting that those who do not feel safe should wave down a bus or run into a nearby house imply she is yet to grasp the reality of the situation[xxvii].
There is talk that the inquiries following the Sarah Everard case will ‘lift the lid’ on police cultures and bring about real change. However, those of us who work in the violence against women and girls (VAWG) sector have been pointing out these truths for years. Now others have caught up and joined the call for change. We hope that with these extra voices we may finally be heard. What is important now is action, not just words. It must be accepted that there is a culture of sexism and misogyny in the police force, no inquiry is needed to come to this very obvious conclusion[xxviii]. New vetting procedures need to be implemented for new police officers, alongside robust training around domestic and sexual violence for all officers including how misogyny may influence decision making. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill currently in Parliament which would see police be granted more power must be, at the very least, put on hold while current policing powers are evaluated. It is crucial that things change and the Police, with the wider Criminal Justice System, have a long road ahead to not only rebuild trust, but also confidence that violence against women and girls will finally be treated with the seriousness it deserves.