The circulation of information about the murder of Sarah Everard has been an experience of sheer horror for women across the country – none less so than when, in March this year, shortly after the discovery of her body, it was revealed that her killer, Wayne Couzens, was a serving Metropolitan Police Officer.
At Couzens’ sentencing at the Old Bailey Court on Wednesday, a horrific detail was revealed: Couzens had arrested and handcuffed Everard, in view of witnesses, using the guise of newly introduced Covid-19 regulations. He then forced her into his car, before he raped her, strangled her with his police belt, and set her body on fire. A couple driving past witnessed her kidnapping but did not intervene, as they thought the arrest was legitimate.
Couzens’ identity as a police officer was key to him carrying out this murder. He had a warrant card, police equipment, and knowledge of Covid patrols and the lockdown regulations at the time. He used the trust that Sarah had in the police to detain her, before kidnapping and attacking her. The fear she must have felt in those moments is truly unimaginable.
Following this horrifying revelation, the Metropolitan Police wasted no time in distancing themselves from Couzens. An investigator on Sarah’s case, former DCI Simon Harding, told Sky News:
Police officers do not view Wayne Couzens as a police officer. They view him as a murderer, who happened to be a police officer – rather than the other way around, a police officer who is a murderer. And that’s a really important thing… he doesn’t hold the same values as a police officer, he doesn’t have the same personality we do, you know – he’s a very sick, very dangerous individual. He should never have been near a uniform.
Though the Met have tried to distance Couzens’ identity as a murderer from his identity as a police officer, details revealed during his sentencing about his conduct before he killed Sarah show a trail of warning signs that went ignored by fellow officers, as part of a deeply embedded culture of misogyny intrinsic to modern policing. Evidence revealed this week shows that the establishment tasked with keeping us safe repeatedly both failed to identify the dangers he presented and failed to prevent a most horrific abuse of power.
Couzens’ car was linked to a report of indecent exposure in 2015, while serving as a police officer in Kent. Despite the vehicle identified by the witness belonging to him, nothing was done, and he went on to join the Metropolitan Police in 2018. He would go on to allegedly commit two more acts of indecent exposure in the days before killing Sarah Everard. His colleagues were aware of his abnormal behaviour, so much so that his nickname whilst serving in the Civil Nuclear Constabulary was ‘The Rapist’ due to his tendency to make women uncomfortable.
Instead of reporting or challenging his behaviour, his fellow officers laughed and made light of the fact he could be a sexual predator. Chief Inspector of Constabulary Sir Tom Winsor also confirmed this week that Couzens ‘also had allegedly a reputation in terms of drug abuse, extreme pornography and other offences of this kind’. These revelations are part of the well-documented issues around the culture of sexism in armed policing in particular, which has been described as ‘horrific’ by former female armed police.
On Friday, it was also revealed that Couzens had exchanged misogynistic, racist, and homophobic messages with other serving police officers in a WhatsApp group. Described as being of a ‘discriminatory and/or inappropriate nature’, the messages, sent by officers serving in the Metropolitan Police, a Norfolk constabulary, and the Civil Nuclear Constabulary where Couzens previously worked, are being investigated by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC). Two of these officers are still on duty.
This is evidence that the problem goes beyond Couzens. Even after the disturbing details of the case were made public, police officers still found ways to make light of Everard’s death. A total of twelve gross misconduct or misconduct notices have been issued to police officers working on Sarah’s case by the IOPC, including one to an officer who sent an inappropriate graphic about the case over social media, before manning the cordon at the search site. If these revelations were not shameful enough, former colleagues of Couzens spoke favourably of him during his sentencing hearing earlier this week, despite his guilty plea and the knowledge of what he had done. Their comments stood in stark contrast to Met Commissioner Cressida Dick’s earlier claims that all officers were outraged at the crime.
The persistent patterns of inappropriate behaviour from Couzens that went unnoticed are distressing, but the response from other officers and practices within the Met itself shed light on an internal culture in which misogyny and violence flourishes.
Couzens’ case was not an anomaly. Research from Byline Times shows that ignoring his possible involvement in an indecent exposure offence is the norm, with 52 percent of London police officers keeping their jobs after being found guilty of sexual misconduct. The Metropolitan Police seems to have a particular issue with these offences, with over 750 Met Police staff facing sexual misconduct allegations since 2010, and only 83 being sacked.
Domestic violence also runs rife in the police force. Since 2017, over 800 domestic abuse allegations have been made against officers and police staff. Despite this high figure, domestic violence and assault perpetrated by police officers is a taboo subject. In 2020, lawyers for the Centre for Women’s Justice submitted a ‘super complaint’ to the IOPC, alleging that only a small proportion of these complaints are taken forward. Research from the CWJ has shown there is a culture of ‘solidarity’ between police officers and their colleagues when it comes to cases of abuse, where complaints are ignored, and victims are even intimidated into staying silent.
Research from 2019 confirms the potency of the ‘boys’ club culture’, revealing that police staff are a third less likely to be prosecuted for domestic violence offences than the general public and that less than a quarter of allegations made against staff result in disciplinary action. In the Metropolitan Police, the figures are devastatingly low, with only eight percent of officers reported for domestic violence offences facing disciplinary action. A strict culture of silence operates even within the staff themselves, with female officers stating that they are fearful of reporting the inappropriate behaviour of their male colleagues, for fear of being purposefully abandoned when dealing with street violence and ‘getting their head kicked in’.
Questions have also been raised about the quality of police vetting and background checks. Couzens was not subject to enhanced vetting when he joined the Metropolitan Police in 2018. Any vetting to which he was subject failed to identify his link to the case of the indecent exposure in Kent. Rather than being a simple error, this is indicative of an institutional problem in police forces across the country. As of 2019, 37 percent of Met officers do not have the correct vetting and there are estimated to be over 35,000 people working for police forces across the country that have not been vetted correctly. This number is higher in the West Midlands police force, the second largest force in the country, where 52 percent of staff do not have the correct vetting.
This repulsive, secretive, and error-riddled internal culture extends far beyond the Everard case. In 2020, two police officers were arrested for sharing pictures over WhatsApp of the bodies of murdered sisters, Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry. The sisters, who were black, were stabbed to death in a London park. Officers assigned to the case, PC Jamie Lewis and PC Deniz Jaffer, took pictures of the crime scene and shared them with both officers and members of the public. Their trial has been postponed indefinitely.
Sarah’s murder has lifted the lid on not only the failures of the police to detect Couzens as a predator, but to the systematic biases that permeate supposed institutions of justice and treat violence and sexual offences against women as acceptable mistakes. Though there are more questions to be asked about the specific failings in this case, one thing remains clear: if this is the culture of misogyny and unaccountability that the Metropolitan Police, and police forces across the country, are accepting and perpetuating, then Couzens did in fact have the values and personality of a police officer.
So what does Cressida Dick, the most senior officer in the country, have to say about this awful crime and her failure to root out misogyny among the police force? In her statement to the press, she offered a predictable ‘sorry’ and spoke of the need to learn lessons from the case, with no mention of the institutional biases that allowed this predator to go undetected. Her words fell flat among the rising cries for her resignation, after her disastrous tenure catalogued another shameful crime.
This is perhaps unsurprising from a woman who was promoted after authorising the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes in 2005 and who has overseen a crisis of racial bias within the Metropolitan Police. But the issue of the weaponisation of police authority and sexist behaviour goes beyond the Met and the Everard case. Alongside a failure to address deep-rooted issues of misogyny and sexual violence, a worrying pattern of violent policing is emerging through the increased police powers introduced following the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Coronavirus Act 2020 introduced a new schedule of criminal offences related to the spread of the coronavirus and the breaking of lockdown regulations. This legislation gave police officers extensive powers to detain anyone they deem infectious or to be breaking regulations, in the interest of public health. It was these regulations which Couzens’ used to detain Everard and handcuff her before her kidnap.
Despite a clear correlation, in an attempt to create distance between newly increased police powers and his depraved actions, Couzens’ arrest of Sarah Everard has been widely described by the press and the police force as a ‘false’ arrest. Many online were quick to point out that under the new regulations, Couzens would have been able to legitimately stop and arrest Sarah. Others also highlighted the fact that any genuinely illegal practices in policing often go unpunished and unreported. A series of incidents occurring since the introduction of these powers has proven this true and that violence, particularly against women, has become endemic in our pandemic policing culture.
Earlier this year, Avon and Somerset police officers dressed as postal workers forced their way into two young women’s houses—one as young as 16—in response to the Kill the Bill protests. Upon forcing entry to the teenager’s home, police shoved her against the wall and threatened her with a taser in front of her father. After the incident, the teenager has described feeling violated and told reporters that she is ‘really nervous to open the door when I don’t know who is behind it.’
Another woman targeted by police, Katie McGoran, was handcuffed in her bedroom whilst partially dressed after they forced entry to her home in disguise. They kept her partially clothed, in full view of male officers, and restrained even when they identified that she was not the person they were looking for. After she began to have a panic attack, she alleges officers began laughing at her distress. Both women had committed no crime and were not identified as who the police were searching for.
Avon and Somerset police force are no strangers to questionable policing and a lack of accountability for their actions. In June this year, aided by officers from other forces, including the Met, twenty police officers illegally raided a block of flats in Bristol in search of squatters. When the flats turned out to be empty and the operation was found to be unlawful, Avon and Somerset police claimed that they could not identify the officers who took part in the illegal raid, nor their bodycam footage, as they did not know their identities. This blatant refusal to accept responsibility for a costly and unlawful operation is indicative of the lack of accountability in our police institutions.
The most astounding episode of abuse came in the immediate aftermath of Sarah’s murder. After the revelation that a serving police officer was likely responsible for her death, Sisters Uncut, a feminist direct action group, led a vigil at Clapham Common in her memory and in protest of the police force’s complicity in her death. Instead of providing a safe space for thousands of women to collectively mourn, police officers waited for the sun to set before swarming in, brutally attacking and detaining women under the guise of lockdown restrictions.
In reality, the outdoor vigil posed very little risk of spreading the virus, but did run the risk of spreading legitimate questions about what role the practices of the Metropolitan Police may have had in this act of sheer brutality. This was a risk the Met were not willing to take. When disgust at the handling of the vigil rang out across the political spectrum, the Met defended their actions, dismissing anti-violence advocates as ‘armchair critics’, and blamed the attendees for gathering during lockdown.
It was an all-too familiar exercise in victim-blaming. It was also a reminder that women are deemed to hold the responsibility to design their lives around their own safety, even in the age of extended police powers.
When it comes to the steps we take to keep ourselves safe, at the behest of the authorities and society at large, every woman knows the routine. Keys between fingers, head down and eyes up, one headphone in, no ponytails, live location on, call or video chat with a boyfriend or a flatmate, winding walks home in a quickstep, always being sure to keep to those well-lit streets. Even in the initial wake of Sarah’s disappearance, Met Police officers knocked on doors in Brixton to tell women not to leave their homes alone, reminiscent of the police response to the Yorkshire Ripper murders forty years ago. It would be mere days before they found out the perpetrator was one of their own.
This week, in response to the revelations at Couzens’ sentencing, the Met issued shockingly asinine advice to women fearful of lone police officers, telling them they should ‘shout or wave down a bus’ if one approaches. In another admission both telling and shocking in equal parts, North Yorkshire commissioner Philip Allott had this to say regarding Sarah’s arrest:
So women, first of all, need to be streetwise about when they can be arrested and when they can’t be arrested. She should never have been arrested and submitted to that… Perhaps women need to consider in terms of the legal process, to just learn a bit about that legal process.
Placing the onus on women to prevent their own attacks is directly correlated to a policing system built in the image of capitalism. Rather than addressing the structures of inequality that capitalism reproduces, women are the ultimate individuals, entirely responsible for violent consequences of tolerated misogyny. Those at the top of these institutions truly hold the earnest belief that women bring even the most horrific sexual violence upon themselves.
This is a sobering revelation, but it is reflective of the system of policing that places the root of crime in individual, moral failing, rather than at the hands of poverty and burgeoning inequality – a result of the rapid expansion of neoliberal politics over the last forty years. As Alex Vitale writes in The End of Policing,
At root, they fail to appreciate that the basic nature of the law and the police, since its earliest origins, is to be a tool for managing inequality and maintaining the status quo. Police reforms that fail to directly address this reality are doomed to reproduce it.
But the resistance to this endemic violence and to the normalisation of misogyny in policing, and in wider society, has been building. Sisters Uncut have called for an end to the modern policing system, the removal of the newly introduced powers and for a halt to the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill, backed by the tyrannical Priti Patel, which threatens the right to protest against the police. Focused on opposing cuts to community services, improving domestic violence services, and community-led policing, they have introduced police intervention training for CopWatch patrol groups across the country. Their message is clear: justice is not a prison sentence, justice is no more dead women.
Behind the noise of social media and the mindless advice from police officials, there was a woman, loved by her family and friends, who never came home. Sarah was described by her family as ‘funny, caring and clever’, and as looking forward to having a family in the future. Her family’s individual grief has been overshadowed by the grief of the collective, lost among the wider frantic argument about how to protect one half of the population from the other. We must not forget her family’s pain and the memory of her life. Couzens’ whole-life order has provided a sense of closure for the Everard family and for those who knew her, but it will not bring her back. For those who did not know her but have been impacted by what happened to her, her death is a shocking reminder that those tasked with keeping society safe are often as complicit in violence as the perpetrators they claim to defend us against.
It is clear that there is a failure at every level in society to address the root causes of violence against women and girls. But there is a wider failure to acknowledge the role of the police in this failing, and that any resolution must come from the dissolution of various excessive powers given to the police and reform that looks to the dismantling of systems that perpetuate oppression. The Metropolitan Police, concerned only with protecting themselves, have shamefully tried to assert that Sarah’s killer was an anomaly, that he did not hold the ‘values’ of the police force, that he was not really a police officer. But this is not the case of one bad apple. The whole barrel is rotten.