How can women trust the police?

Sarah Everard’s murder by a serving police officer has raised questions of how effective police-vetting is. It has also shone a spotlight on a culture of misogyny that pervades in forces across the country.

women can't trust the police
Women can’t trust the police. Photo by West Midlands Police on Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

After the tragic case of Sarah Everard’s rape and murder by a serving officer, and other recent disturbing cases within the police, there are renewed calls to root out officers who are a risk to women.

We have been here before

Ten years ago a former Northumbria police constable received a life sentence for serious sex attacks against women he met through his job. A subsequent report in 2012, The Abuse of Police Powers to Perpetrate Sexual Violence, examined a number of misconduct case studies. It concluded that vetting could have ‘highlighted… conduct history and raised serious questions about suitability for a post’. It described ‘how the behaviour of sexual offenders can escalate over time… from indecent exposure, sexual touching, and more serious sexual assault to rape’. Cases were found where officers ‘knew or had suspicions about their [colleagues’ sexual] conduct’.

The report made several recommendations, asking many questions about vetting, predicting behaviour patterns and reporting by colleagues, as well as establishing a ‘code of conduct setting out required standards of behaviour between police officers and staff and those who use the police’.

Should we be more confident now?

Are officers now selected and managed with watertight scrutiny of attitudes and actions towards women and girls? Sadly, no.

Freedom of Information requests reveal that from 2016 to 2020, 750 accusations of police sexual misconduct were made in 31 forces. However, on 25 October 2021,  BBC Newsnight quoted a figure of 2702 allegations in 44 of UK’s 46 forces in the last 5 years. 

These numbers include 14 cases in Suffolk and nine in Norfolk. In those two constabularies, 70 percent of those found guilty kept their jobs. In Hertfordshire, 27 allegations were made. Sexual assault claims against Cambridgeshire Police numbered 15. The majority of perpetrators were male. This year, Essex Police took no further action against an officer accused of raping two female colleagues, although the women were awarded compensation. And on the 27th October 2021, a serving Metropolitan policeman was charged with rape.

What about the recommendations?

In the introduction to a 2019 PEEL report, ‘Abuse of Position for a Sexual Purpose’, HM Inspector of Constabulary, Zoe Billingham, found that many forces had made changes. However, she was ‘deeply disappointed to find that others have, after all this time, still not put some basic measures in place’. It was estimated that ‘more than 10 percent of the police workforce did not have up to date vetting’. She stated that forces should ‘reflect… and take action…to protect the public from predators who have no place in policing’.

Are police officers more likely to report colleagues now?

Staff still don’t always report colleagues’ misconduct. After the Sarah Everard case, investigators discovered that a WhatsApp group of policemen including Couzens and a Norfolk policeman, had exchanged misogynistic messages. Why did no group member challenge the others? According to the Chief Inspector of Constabulary where Couzens previously worked, he had a reputation ‘in terms of drug abuse, extreme pornography and other offences…’ He was nicknamed ‘The Rapist’ and was also linked to indecent exposure incidents going back years. Warning signs were missed.

The 2019 PEEL report observes that when abuse cases come to light, staff often say they had noticed that ‘the offender exhibited sexualised behavioural traits’. Some policemen don’t see this behaviour as inappropriate. Yet sexism, groping, catcalling and flashing are red flags: first steps in a continuum of rape culture. If staff are not reported and disciplined for these behaviours, it can lead to far worse assaults on women. Often policewomen don’t report male colleagues’ inappropriate behaviour as it is excused as ‘banter‘ and they believe the men will ‘close ranks’, not supporting them in emergencies. So, these men have little fear of being disciplined.

 Do women trust the police to keep them safe?

Less and less. The plan to deploy more plainclothes officers into clubs to protect women, was met with derision, and questions like ‘but who will protect me from the plainclothes officer?’ Trust will be very difficult to rebuild.

The ‘laughable’ advice to women (following Couzens’ crime) to flag down a bus, run into a house or dial 999, just proves that the police have failed to make themselves worthy of trust. Once again, the onus is put on women to protect themselves from men, even policemen.

Cressida Dick failed to resign
Cressida Dick failed to resign after Couzens’ conviction. Photo by No10 on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Is the government serious about tackling police sexual misconduct?

Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick, did not resign after the Couzens case. Harriet Harman MP rightly says confidence in the police ‘cannot be rebuilt with the attempt to reassure that this was just…one ‘bad’un’.’ Commissioner Dick has announced yet another review into the Met’s culture. Many people feel that yet another review is not what is needed – it’s clear that all too many officers have misogynistic attitudes.

Home Secretary Priti Patel has announced an inquiry into vetting procedures and workplace behaviour, but as End Violence Against Women says: ‘there have been countless recommendations in previous reviews but meaningful change has not materialised.’

How can women have faith this one will make any difference? If the recommendations are not legal requirements, it is unlikely that every single police force will comply to the letter. And without change, another police sex offender could slip through the net.

What now?

Given the numbers of police identified in misconduct cases, it is clear that something serious and systemic is affecting the force. We don’t need more reports or inquiries carried out by police or government. Previous reports’ recommendations should be implemented, for example:

  • Vet thoroughly
  • Encourage and support whistleblowers
  • Use previous conduct to predict likely future behaviour

There needs to be an uncompromising direction and example from the very top of police and government to instil an anti-sexist culture. This may need personnel changes to establish a new culture. Lord Falconer recently suggested that ‘Unless [there are] massive visible changes as quickly as possible, confidence will not begin to edge back.’

Policing is by consent, and as trust crumbles, many people will be ‘withdrawing their consent’.

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