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Changing a police force for good

Changing a police force for good

After Sarah Everard’s murder, there are now going to be two separate inquiries into the culture of the Metropolitan Police. What chance do they have of bringing about real change?


Transcript
Claudia Williams, Narrating:

Hi, I’m Claudia – and this is Sensemaker – from tortoisemedia.com

One story every day to make sense of the world.

***

Over the past year, case after case has seemed to confirm that our police forces are rife with sexism and misogyny. 

Today, I’m asking: how can we begin to change that? 

And just before we start, I should warn you that in this episode I’ll be talking about violence against women and sexual violence. 

***

Back in March of this year, we learned that Sarah Everard, a young woman who had gone missing in south London, had been murdered. 

And the prime suspect was a Metropolitan Police officer, Wayne Couzens. 

All over the UK, women were devastated and angered by Sarah Everard’s murder.

The story about a woman, abducted while walking home alone, spoke to a lot of people about their own experiences:

“Sarah Everard’s story has struck a chord with so many thousands of women and men too. On social media and beyond they are telling their stories of male aggression and assault, they are voicing their fears about male aggression and their fury that our society doesn’t protect women and they are demanding change.” 

BBC Newsnight

And women were fearful about what it meant for their safety… that the suspect was a serving police officer:

“I think it’s really made me second guess things and I’ve lost trust in the police definitely.”

Woman speaking to the Mail

Last week, Wayne Couzens was sentenced to life in prison for the kidnap, rape and murder of Sarah Everard. 

And it was during that hearing that we discovered he abused his policing powers to trick – to force – Sarah Everard into his car. 

He told her she’d broken Covid rules and that he was arresting her. 

He showed her his police-issued warrant card and used his handcuffs to restrain her. 

He made her believe it was a legitimate arrest.

*** Pause ***

Wayne Couzens used his police status to ensnare his victim.

And it has raised the prospect that his crime was effectively enabled by the police.

That a culture of misogyny within the institution led it to overlook sexist conduct from Wayne Couzens and ignore warning signs about his past behaviour. 

Six years before, when he was working on a force in Kent, Wayne Couzens could have been linked to an indecent exposure incident… but nothing came of that investigation. 

He later passed the vetting process that allowed him to move to the Met. 

During the murder trial, evidence surfaced about the attitudes of Wayne Couzens and his colleagues towards women. 

He had been part of a Whatsapp chat where abusive and offensive messages about women are alleged to have been shared between serving police officers, three of them members of the Met Police. 

Then, just a few days before Sarah Everard was murdered, Wayne Couzens’ car could’ve been connected to another indecent exposure incident… but once again police missed the link.

He’s far from the only police officer to be accused of sexual misconduct and sexual violence. A Met officer appeared in court on Monday, charged with rape.

Dozens of others in the force have been convicted of sex offences in the last five years, according to reports by the Sunday Mirror.

Now politicians, campaigners, activists – and ordinary women everywhere – are calling for the institution to be reformed.

“This isn’t about an individual officer. This is about a prevailing culture, within policing and it has to be broken.” 

Susannah Fish OBE, former Chief Constable of Nottinghamshire Police, BBC Newsnight

*** Pause ***

Over the past few days, multiple independent inquiries have been ordered. 

One by the Met police: 

“People are rightly gravely concerned about what they’ve seen. As a consequence today I am announcing that we will have an independent person come in and review the Met in terms of its standards and in terms of its culture; how we treat each other and how we treat the public.”

Cressida Dick, The Independent

And one by the Home Office:

“I can confirm today that there will be an inquiry to give the independent oversight needed to ensure that something like this can never happen again.”

Priti Patel, Sky News

Meanwhile, other investigations by the Independent Office for Police Conduct are looking into the police’s handling of the indecent exposure report – as well as allegations that police officers inappropriately shared details about the Wayne Couzens investigation. 

But will any of these inquiries and investigations do what needs to be done to change police culture?

***

Campaigners and politicians have offered the beginnings of a blueprint for the changes they think need to be made. 

Labour MP Harriet Harman says that new rules about how the police handles officers accused of violence against women should come in, with immediate effect:

“What happened is that. Early warnings signals were not heeded and it is that that’s got to change so that where there’s an allegation of violence against women against a police officer, that police officer is immediately suspended. And then there’s an independent investigation.

Harriet Harman, BBC World at One

She says forces should suspend police officers who are accused of violence against women; make it a disciplinary offence not to report colleagues who are accused of gender-based violence; and make it a requirement to re-vet officers whenever they move to a different force. 

But, is this what the inquiries from the Met and the Home office will deliver? 

***

Here’s what Met police Chief Cressida Dick had to say about the independent review she is commissioning:

“Our leadership, our processes, our systems, our people, our training – everything will be looked at.” 

Cressida Dick, the Independent

She says it’ll evaluate the institution from top to bottom. 

And yesterday at the Conservative party conference, Home secretary Priti Patel outlined the scope of the government’s inquiry: 

“It is abhorrent that a serving police officer was able to abuse his position of power, authority and trust to commit such a horrific crime. The public have a right to know what systematic failures allowed him to continue as a police officer. We need answers.”

Priti Patel, Sky news

But will these public inquiries be enough to catalyse the wide-ranging reforms that are needed? 

Other inquiries haven’t managed it: the 1999 MacPherson inquiry investigated the police’s handling of the murder of Black teenager Stephen Lawrence, finding “institutional racism” within the police. 

There were positive changes in the Met after that report, but 20 years later the police still have a big problem with racism.

And there’s a risk the same thing will happen with these two investigations into police culture. That they’ll change some things…but not enough to make a real difference.

Today’s episode was written and produced by Ella Hill.