The kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old marketing executive, as she walked home alone in her London neighborhood of Clapham Common on the evening of March 3, has aroused outrage in all quarters of the United Kingdom.
The outrage has been exacerbated by an upsurge in anger and resentment by women who believe the criminal justice system, and the police in particular, have failed them.
They marshal strong arguments to make their case, noting that objectification and sexual violence by men has largely been ignored by law enforcement authorities, the courts and the legislature. And as if to underline the point, a demonstration held two weeks later to both commemorate Everard and protest treatment of women turned into an ugly clash with police.
(Permission to hold the demonstration was originally denied by the authorities, who cited COVID-19 rules against mass gatherings.)
The UK, it’s safe to say, has been experiencing a reckoning about the uses of police power that is comparable in intensity—if not in quantity—to Americans’ agonizing debates since the killing of George Floyd.
Is it justified?
It’s no coincidence that a police and crime bill introduced by the Tory government that would give authorities more powers to curb nonviolent demonstrations, and which has been quietly wending its way through Parliament, has come into sharp focus.
The Everard protesters are not the only ones incensed by the bill. There have been demonstrations across the country, most recently in Bristol this week, where protesters shouting “Kill the Bill” set police vehicles on fire.
Critics have pointed out that the bill is lacking in any understanding or thought on how to tackle misogyny and sexual violence. After all, they say, how can the sentencing proposals to increase the jail term for toppling a statue be worth more than the punishment for stalking and harassment – a crime that often leads to sexual assault and murder?
As a 30-year veteran of British policing, I’m willing to acknowledge the critics have a point.
But the angry rhetoric unleashed by the debate is not productive. In fact, it threatens to prevent us from taking advantage of a real opportunity for reform.
The bill clearly needs a rethink.
It was Tony Blair, the former Labour Prime Minister who established a basic foundational principle for modern policing in Britain.
In a 1993 article for the New Statesman, he wrote, “Crime is quintessentially a problem the individual cannot tackle alone. Crime demands that communities work as communities to fight it.”
These sentiments are just as true today.
Police forces pride themselves as being part of those communities. But women have increasingly felt that their voices are not heard, in particular by police. They see police as part of the problem, rather than part of the solution in tackling crimes against women and, as the Everard killing tragically demonstrated, often as offenders themselves.
A serving police officer, Wayne Couzens, 48, has been charged in the kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard. Couzens , a diplomatic protection officer, had just finished his shift when he allegedly attacked Everard, a woman unknown to him.
In 2019, the Independent newspaper in Britain reported that 568 London police officers were accused of sexual assault between 2012 and 2018, with only 43 officers facing disciplinary action, according to an article cited in The New York Times.
There were also 700 reports of domestic violence by police officers and staff from 2015 to 2018.
A television documentary aired March 2 took viewers through the stalking murder of a 19- year-old woman, Shana Grice. She reported her stalker five times, and her life could have been saved but for the inaction of police officers, one of whom even fined her £90 (about US$124) for wasting police time.
This makes grim reading and viewing. Is it any wonder that many women now mistrust the UK police?
Rape investigations are a case in point. The prosecution of complaints of rape are hugely discouraging to women. Dame Vera Baird, the UK Victims of Crime Commissioner, said in her 2020 annual report that the number of rape prosecutions has gotten so low that “what we are witnessing is the decriminalization of rape”
In 2019-20 less than 3 percent of reported cases of rape resulted in a criminal prosecution.
There are many reasons why the cases fail, not least because of the unrelenting focus on women’s sexual behavior and history that causes women to both withdraw allegations and underreport these crimes.
The UK’s national prosecutions agency, the Crown Prosecution Service, has launched a five-year blueprint to make sure offenders of sexual violence are brought to justice.
“It is clear that more needs to be done both to encourage victims to come forward with confidence, and to support them through the criminal justice process, so the gap between reports of rape and cases that reach the courts can be closed,” said Max Hill, director of public prosecutions.
What now needs to be done?
If the murder of Sarah Everard and the righteous anger of women are to have any lasting impact, then now is the time to take stock.
A recently announced national review of policing by former chiefs of police and academics on behalf of the government couldn’t have happened at a more auspicious moment.
It is reasonable to hope that the events of the past few weeks and the singular loss of trust and respect for the police by many women, will be factored into their thinking.
And the point is supported by government leaders. It should be noted that both the Home Secretary, whose responsibility includes the national police, and the head of the Metropolitan Police Force, known colloquially as Scotland Yard, are both women.
Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, has said that she wants to use her role to protect women and girls. She has committed to developing a new national strategy on tackling violence against women and girls, which will be published later this year.
In a recent interview with The Sun newspaper she said “Every single woman and girl should be free to walk our streets without the slightest fear of harassment, abuse or violence.”
Scotland Yard’s Chief, Dame Cressida Dick, rejected calls to resign over police handling of the protests, and said the controversy has only made her “more determined to lead.”
The future of the crime bill is now uncertain, and while it’s unclear what impact the new review will have, at the very least, we should expect to improve the training police officers are given so that they can deal consistently and properly with crimes against women.
But one thing is clear.
After this difficult month in Britain, the status quo isn’t an option.
Gareth Bryon, a former Detective Chief Superintendent, served as a senior officer in the South Wales Police and the British Transport Police, where he led major crime investigations and forensic science services for 30 years.