The outrage felt by Londoners over the murder of a young woman by a serving police officer was reflected in the severity of the whole-life term of imprisonment imposed on her killer this week by Lord Justice Fulford in London’s Old Bailey courtroom.
The sentence meted out to Wayne Couzens, 48, equivalent to Life Without Parole in the U.S., in the March 3 death of Sarah Everard is rarely used in the UK. It’s usually reserved for terrorists, serial murderers or the perpetrators of other horrible crimes.
But most people in this country agreed with the judge that the offense committed by Couzens was so “grotesque” he should spend the rest of his life behind bars. The killer, said the judge, had demonstrated “no evidence of genuine contrition.”
Everard, a 33-year-old marketing executive, had been walking home in South London from an evening out when Couzens, identifying himself as a police officer, arrested her under false pretenses.
After putting her in handcuffs, he drove Everard to a location many miles from London, where he raped and strangled her before dumping her body and setting it alight the following day. While Everard was not known to her killer, Couzens was shown to have planned and premeditated his crime, selecting her at random as she walked home alone.
The fact that Couzens was a serving member of the Metropolitan Police sworn to protect the public gave the tragedy an even darker tone. The presence of Dame Cressida Dick, the Chief Constable of the London Metropolitan police in the courtroom was likely meant to convey a special message of repentance.
But whether the message will be fully acknowledged remains an open question.
Aside from the anger felt by women across the UK at what they consider the lack of attention paid to their concerns over public safety, the Metropolitan police are facing hard questions over whether chances were missed to detect Couzens’ predatory behavior while he was on the force.
The nation will await the findings of a White Paper on policing that is expected to lead to a major overhaul of policing in the UK.
But the facts unearthed so far suggest a troubling pattern of failure in police oversight.
Couzens transferred to the Metropolitan police in 2018 from the Civil Nuclear Constabulary, where he had worked since 2011. The Independent Office for Police Conduct has been investigating two incidents of indecent exposure connected to Couzens that occurred just a month before the murder, and the alleged failures by Kent Police to investigate another incident of the same nature linked to him in 2015.
He had been able to transfer into a diplomatic protection role in the Metropolitan police prior to Everard’s murder and had been working at the American embassy in London.
Couzens’ crimes, devastating as they are for Everard’s family, are gut-wrenching for the UK police service as a whole.
It is patently galling that opportunities to catch Couzens may have been missed earlier; but it is no less sobering to realize that one of the world’s foremost law enforcement agencies has proven itself incapable of investigating and dealing appropriately with misconduct and criminality committed by individuals in their own ranks.
Indeed, 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.
There were also 700 reports of domestic violence by police officers and staff from 2015 to 2018.
In a poignant irony, a television documentary aired March 2—the day before Everard was killed―took viewers through the stalking murder of a 19- year-old woman, Shana Grice. She had reported her stalker to police 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?
The damage Couzens has inflicted on the police service is immense.
At a time when the police need public support, these cases serve as a reminder that bad apples within police ranks must be rooted out. Women across the UK may not feel safe if stopped by a lone police officer in the future, and that is a sorry state of affairs.
As a consequence, the beleaguered chief constable Dame Cressida Dick is now, once again, facing calls for her resignation, not least by a London Member of Parliament, Harriet Harman.
Harman is chair of the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights and a former justice minister. She has for many years been an active campaigner on women’s rights, and is now calling for tougher action against police officers accused of violence against women and for better recruitment vetting to stop potential offenders from slipping through the net.
The BBC reports that Harman believes Dame Cressida is not the right person to restore the confidence of women in the police in London.
However, UK Home Secretary Pritti Patel, with the evident approval of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, this month extended Dick’s contract as head of the Metropolitan Police.
For her part, the Chief Constable acknowledged that “a precious bond of trust has been damaged” and promised there would lessons to be learned.
She is resisting calls to resign.
It is worth noting that Cressida is among the comparatively few women to reach senior positions in UK policing. Basically barred from most frontline police jobs until the 1970s, women are still outnumbered by men by more than 2.5 to one.
Sue Fish, former Chief Constable in Nottinghamshire, says the consequence is an “institutional misogyny” that was reflected in both the police investigation of the Everard murder and the violence used by police during a mass protest demonstration by women in London .
“They were institutionally misogynistic in terms of their approach to the event,” Fish told The Guardian newspaper. “It is just so ingrained in the decision-making. They don’t realize they are doing it and why.”
The Everard case has shone a harsh spotlight on these inequities.
On the same day as the sentencing hearing, judges on the Investigatory Powers Tribunal found that a married undercover Metropolitan police officer who had infiltrated an environmental group had violated the human rights of a female activist whom he had seduced.
In a landmark decision, the Tribunal asserted that using illicit sexual relations to gather intelligence was a gross abuse of police power. Moreover, the Tribunal noted, the officer’s actions were tacitly encouraged by his superiors.
The police have apologized unreservedly, but the timing of this finding will serve only to further undermine the trust and confidence that all women must have in the police for them to report crimes against their gender.
Whether such cases represent the actions of a tiny minority or reflect a systemic pattern of abuse remains for the Inspectorate of Constabulary to determine.
But one thing is already clear: The road to restoring the faith of the British public in their police service runs steeply uphill.
Gareth Bryon is a former Detective Chief Superintendent who worked as a senior officer in the South Wales Police and the British Transport Police, where he led major crime investigation and forensic science services for over 30 years.