This month has been a hard one for British women. The sentencing of murderer and rapist Wayne Couzens for teh rape and murder of Sarah Everard has forced women to confront a terrifying reality – we are not safe walking the streets alone.
The details of the case are uniquely horrible. Everard – who was walking home at 21:30 – was falsely arrested by serving police officer Wayne Couzens who then raped and strangled her before burning the body.
Sarah was doing nothing wrong. There was no way to escape her fate, described in court as, ‘deception, kidnap, rape, strangulation, fire’.
This raises some especially unpleasant questions. How can we women defend ourselves when we can no longer trust those whose job it is to protect us? How can we trust those with power, when they use their authority to take advantage of us? If rapists and murderers are literally everywhere, will we ever be safe?
It’s a story that taps into our deepest fears. Rationally women know that we are actually far safer on the streets than in our own homes – 61% of female murder victims are killed as a result of domestic violence.
But we also know that we too would comply if a serving police officer tried to arrest us. Of course we would. We would have profusely apologised for breaking the law, and we would have freely sat in the back of his car – like lambs to the slaughter.
Why then does the majority of advice offered by the metropolitan police concern how women should be changing their own behaviour – not how the police themselves should be reforming?
If arrested by a sole plain-clothed male officer, women have been told to: ‘…seek assistance by shouting out to a passer-by, running into a house, knocking on a door, waving a bus down or if you are in the position to do so calling 999.’ Brilliant! I’ll be sure to bear that all in mind if confronted by a 6ft male police who could easily out-run and over-power me.
Even more ludicrously The North Yorkshire police commissioner said that Everard should never have ‘submitted’ to a false arrest adding that women ‘need to be streetwise’ about the powers that police officers have – though has since retracted and apologised for these comments.
There is an embarrassingly long precedent for tone-deaf victim blaming when it comes to crimes against women. During the Yorkshire ripper killings women were given curfews and were told not to walk alone late at night. When female rape victims come forward, questions about what she was wearing and how much she was drinking effortlessly tumble from people’s lips.
It is not the responsibility of women to not to get attacked, it is the responsibility of society to not attack women. The Met needs a seismic shift in its attitude and fast!
Even whilst dealing with the latest case the police are behaving appallingly. The officers who were in an allegedly ‘misogynistic and racist’ WhatsApp group chat with Wayne are still serving despite being under criminal investigation by the Independent Office into Police Conduct. The former Met Chief Superintendent Parm Sandhu, admitted that female police officers are scared to report their male colleagues. This hardly inspires confidence, nor does it say much for Cressida Dick’s leadership.
On top of that out of 750 Met Police employees who faced sexual misconduct allegations since 2010, just 83 were sacked. The rest still serve. Shocking.
If trust is to be restored in what I believe to be a fundamentally good organisation – change needs to happen. Accusations of sexual misconduct by police officers should be properly investigated and dealt with, and all officers suspended whilst investigations are ongoing. There should be a visible, no-nonsense approach to misogyny within the force and women should feel able to report colleagues for inappropriate behaviour. Police should be educated about appropriate office banter and understand why if a colleague’s nickname is ‘The Rapist’, as Couzens’ was, there might be something very. very wrong.
However, looking at the broader issue of male violence against women, it’s clear that we need some more general solutions to this pervasive problem.
Since Everard’s murder there have been 80 women killed by men – most notably schoolteacher Sabina Nessa who was murdered whilst on the way to meet a friend. Violence against women is pervasive and at times feels unavoidable.
The Government needs to implement some serious, practical steps to protect women. Taxis for women walking home late at night, driven by women, is a practice already widespread at some universities. Better street lighting and more CCTV in areas where there is a lot of crime.
However none of these strategies would have saved Sarah. The sad, terrifying reality is that women are still vulnerable. We have far greater freedoms and opportunities than our mothers and grandmothers, but none of the advances we have made can protect us from a monster with a police badge.
It happened to Everard, it could happen to any one of us.
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