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That police officer Wayne Couzens used his warrant card to stop Sarah Everard and take handcuffs before expelling her from London to rape and kill her is disturbing enough. That the forces employing him may have missed several earlier opportunities to suspend him makes it so much worse.
Couzens is just the youngest in a long line of officers allowed to continue within police ranks after being accused of misconduct against women. The horrific crimes he committed are further evidence that police leaders need to reform the way they handle such allegations against their own. Over years of investigation domestic abuse by officers, I have come across case by case where forces did not take reports of women seriously.
First, they need to solve an institutional problem with attitudes and a culture that could possibly be shaped by the fact that only 32 per cent of officers in England and Wales are female. In many cases, police officers do not believe that their colleagues can be dangerous. It is at most an over-sufficient statement and, in the worst case, a life-threatening disregard for women.
In a recent case, the Metropolitan Police allowed a senior officer to continue working for three years after two female colleagues accused him of rape. That the government’s compensation authority for criminal injuries found the evidence credible enough to compensate the women for serious sexual and physical abuse was not enough for the Met to stop him from working with other female officers.
Officers at another force took a suicidal woman who had saved them from a bridge back to her official, despite her begging not to do so and telling them of his abuse. When they got home, her husband told the officers, whom he knew, “Okay, I’ll fix her”. Another power failure to arrest an officer after a young female student he dated reported him for controlling and stalking behavior. He was allowed to remain in the post and abused another, even younger, female site.
In 2015, Kent police took no action against Couzens, at the time an officer with a force that protected nuclear plants, when he was linked to an indecent exposure. Three years later, he was allowed to go to the Met despite this allegation and in 2021, days before Everard’s kidnapping, he was linked to two more indecent exposure reports. The independent police conduct office is currently investigating the response of the two forces to these incidents.
It is imperative that police leaders make practical changes, such as automatically suspending the officer accused of violence against women, as proposed by Harriet Harman-LP this week. Such measures will give victims the confidence that reports will be acted upon. After all, women will be more afraid to come forward if the offender works for the organization that has the task of investigating it.
Last year, lawyers at the Center for Women’s Justicesuper complaint”- a legal tool for challenging institutional issues in the police – against all powers in England and Wales over how they deal with domestic abuse on their own. The lawyers argue that all such allegations should be investigated by an external force and propose automatic oversight by the Independent Police Service as well as an independent emergency line for victims.
These proposals may or may not be feasible, but the fact that police forces are not conducting this conversation themselves is damning. Anger at the police has been rising since the sentencing of Couzens this week, with a flurry of calls for inquiries and the resignation of Cressida Dick, the Met commissioner. Frustration is exacerbated by tone-deaf police advice for women to wave in a bus if they suspect an officer is trying to kidnap them.
Other forces are also moving at an ice age over this issue. In 2018, responses to freedom of information showed that less than a third in the UK have specific procedures in place to ensure an impartial response to employees accused of domestic abuse. This year, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism asked all 48 forces (including specialist forces) if they had made any changes since then. Only two said yes.
It is not just domestic abuse. Pitfalls in the way forces handle allegations against officers can apply to all forms of violence against women. The vast majority of those who serve in the police force will be upset about other officers abusing their positions. Those in power must put in place robust mechanisms to prevent them from being let down, and to ensure that women are safer everywhere.