Sarah Everard, the police and the public

A white woman wearing a blue face mask laying flowers at the base of a tree where a number of other flowers have been left. A banner attached to he tree reads "Reclaim these streets" and other banners can be seen on the wall behind, including one saying "Rest in love Sarah; you deserved to make it home safe". Another white woman, wearing a pink mask, if standing in front of the wall.
A woman laying flowers at a vigil for Sarah Everard in Sheffield.

Last week, a former Metropolitan (i.e. London) Police officer named Wayne Couzens was sentenced to life imprisonment for the rape and murder of Sarah Everard, a woman he falsely arrested on Covid rules violation charges and then abducted, raped and murdered last March towards the end of the most recent lockdown. He was given a whole-life tariff, i.e. life without parole, because of the particularly aggravating matter of having abused his policing powers to abduct someone for personal gratification and because the action struck at the heart of policing by public consent and the rule of law. Over the last week or so, there has been talk of women feeling increasingly unsafe as it has become obvious that the police as well as random men are a threat to their safety, especially at night, and of them giving their daughters a similar talk to those that Black and other non-white parents give their children, especially their sons, on how to deal with the police. The way Couzens was able to gain sensitive roles and move from one constabulary to another despite numerous accusations of sexual misconduct (in a previous job, not with the Met, he was known as “the rapist”) and had not been suspended recently despite being accused of exposing himself in a MacDonalds has shed a light on how the Met fails to deal with predators in its ranks. Cressida Dick, the Met police commissioner who has weathered a number of other scandals and recently had her contract extended by two years, gave a statement the night of Couzens’s conviction which seemed to me to be devoid of any emotion and has refused to resign and is being supported in this by both the prime minister and the current leader of the Labour opposition, Keir Starmer.

On social media the afternoon following his conviction, I read suggestions that he must not have been acting alone and that this was probably not his first murder. I’m not convinced by this. Couzens used a hire car which could be easily traced to him, and abducted a woman from a main road in Clapham; main roads in London are very well covered by CCTV and buses all have forward-facing cameras to record vehicles in bus lanes that should not be there. I can think of three possibilities: first, he was counting on the support of other officers; second, that he just thought he was cleverer than he really was, and third, that this had been something he had been wanting to do for some time and avoiding getting caught was less important than actually fulfilling his aim. He made serious attempts to harm himself while in custody following his arrest, so it is possible that he intended to kill himself if caught and might make further attempts in prison.

Police chiefs have made suggestions as to how the public can protect themselves from false arrests, such as trying to flag down a passing bus or running to someone’s house, all of which have been roundly ridiculed as buses will simply not stop away from official bus stops and you cannot guarantee that the particular house you run to will be occupied or that the occupier will open the front door. Others have suggested that women should be more ‘streetwise’ and read up on their rights. What is needed is for the rules of how a police officer can or will arrest a member of the public to be clarified and, if necessary, changed. After all, the idea of abducting someone by using a false arrest is a genie that is now out of the bottle and the next person who tries this might be cleverer and less cocky than Wayne Couzens; the danger could come from a real police officer or an impersonator. The first change should be that nobody should be required to get into a car other than an identifiable police car or van, and I do not include cars with blue lights but no livery. The second is that off-duty police officers should not carry their warrant cards but be issued with an ID card that identifies them to other officers, allowing them to assist in the event of an incident, but should not confer powers of arrest, or at least powers to transport the arrested person anywhere. Police do not normally use such vehicles to transport arrested people; this norm must be made into well-known standard practice; the “don’t normallys” must become “nevers” and “can’ts”. This way, anybody witnessing an incident like this in future is under no illusions that this is a false arrest and are less likely to walk on by.

That Couzens could do this so easily, and also the reason why he received such a stiff penalty, was because he picked on an ideal victim: a white, middle-class woman who had no reason to fear the police and meekly complied with the arrest, even offering her other hand when he handcuffed her. Even if people familiar with police abuses who crowd around and record arrests or stops and searches they perceive as harassment had happened by, they would probably have thought nothing was amiss here. There is a danger of people becoming more concerned about police abducting and murdering white women, which has happened (as far as I’m aware) precisely once in recent years than about racially-targeted, sometimes violent, police harassment which targets children as well as adults and happens a lot. When Black families give their children “the talk”, the idea is to make it clear that they should not challgenge the officer even if he is aggressive or obviously prejudiced, as this will be used as an excuse to become more aggressive and violent and could result in them being arrested or killed; it was precisely this trust of and submission to authority that Couzens exploited.

A large collection of flowers under a bandstand on Clapham Common. A banner among them reads, in pink on a black background, "On the way home I want to feel free, not brave".
Flowers left for Sarah Everard at Clapham Common in March 2021

It is disappointing, but not altogether surprising, that Keir Starmer has thrown his weight behind Cressida Dick. He is preoccupied with the need to appeal to the “Red Wall”, the group of former ‘safe’ Labour seats in the provincial North that switched to the Tories at the last election, where voters are presumed to be pro-establishment, patriotic, ‘true’ (read white) working-class people who trust the police. This presumption is misplaced: working-class people experienced police violence on many occasions during the 1980s, notably during the miners’ and steelworkers’ strikes, as well as the calumnies of the police (echoed by the tabloid press and by politicians) against the Liverpool fans who were killed or injured at Hillsborough. There is a sense that distrust of the police is confined to troublemakers and wrongdoers as well as minorities and some “metropolitan liberals” and that ‘normal’ (white, provincial) people regard the police as friendly to them and believe politicians’ and police chiefs’ claims that the corrupt or depraved police are a small minority of “bad apples”.

It is important that we keep the focus on the police culture that has allowed countless predators, domestic abusers and other criminals to maintain careers in the police force, allowing them power over ordinary people. Of course, such people exist in wider society, but this must not be a distraction: the police are there to maintain the law, order and decency. They must not be “no better than the rest of us” and certainly must not be allowed to cover up for those who abuse their position or less experienced officers or their families or ordinary people. We have seen too many situations where the police abused or injured people with impunity; the killing of Ian Tomlinson, who was hit over the head unprovoked by an officer with anger management issues that were known to his colleagues, in 2009 was a classic example (he was acquitted of even manslaughter, but dismissed from the force for gross misconduct and the force acknowledged that his actions had caused Tomlinson’s death). Couzens did not get away with it largely because there was no way of portraying his victim as being in any way blameworthy, nor his actions as an operational mistake, and would have done if either of these arguments could have been made. We must not allow the same excuses to be made for those who aided and abetted him along the way. There must be action now, and change now.

Image sources: Tim Dennell, via Wikimedia, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution License v2.0 (CC BY 2.0), and Rosianna Rojas, via Twitter.

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