There are certain lessons we all learn from a young age about how to keep safe. Always look both ways when crossing the road, do not walk with scissors, do not… trust the police? After the sentencing of former Metropolitan Police officer Wayne Couzens for the rape and murder of Sarah Everard last month, women have been advised just that. No longer our protectors, police officers are as likely to be predators as any other man on the street. Although there is no doubt that Wayne Couzens' actions were an exceptional case, the Met Police's response reflects the prevailing culture around violence against women and girls as they advised women on how to protect themselves rather than advising officers on how they can change. The onus is placed on potential victims to prevent attacks, rather than on potential attackers. However, it was the content of the advice that made it appear even more tone-deaf, essentially reading like this:
When you feel threatened by a police officer, you can flag down a bus. As the most reliable and simple form of transport there is, all you need to do in the midst of a traumatic confrontation is A) decipher a bus timetable, B) pray the bus is on time, and C) cross your fingers that it actually stops for you, considering that attackers do not always plan the location of the act around the known bus routes.
Or you can always call 999. If you do not trust this police officer, maybe you will trust the next one. We know that this one was bad but the rest of us will protect you. It is now your responsibility to get yourself out of this situation, but do not worry, we will try and help you if we can. Just make sure you have your phone handy and hope that your attacker cannot see you calling.
The small glimpse of hope amidst the baffling advice issued by the Met Police has been people’s justifiable anger against the suggestion that the responsibility for the assault of women and girls rests on them rather than the culprits. The advice has especially been critiqued by minority communities who have historically been victimised at the hands of the police. Black and ethnic minority communities have long understood the harsh reality that the police are not simply benevolent protectors; they are reflective of wider society. While there might be “good cops”, there are also racist and sexist “bad cops”. The Met advice completely misunderstands this by targeting its advice at women instead of apologising and proving to people that it is going to take drastic action. For example, advice for women to run away from officers they feel threatened by just demonstrates a complete lack of understanding for the implication this could have for all women, but in particular for women from communities which the police have historically discriminated against.
Perhaps the people in the best position to advise are the people who experience this threat on a daily basis and women and girls should take the opportunity to generate their own recommendations for the police.
Please protect us. We already deal with threats of intimidation and violence from the civilian population; we do not need the same from the police. Feeling safe to approach a police officer if you feel in danger should be a universal experience, not a luxury.
If it is not too much to ask, it would be much appreciated if you could extend this to treating all women and girls like human beings deserving of your respect and defence. This includes taking women seriously when they express concerns for their safety. Sarah Everard’s killer has now been reported for indecent exposure three times with one woman claiming that the police laughed down the phone when she reported the incident to them. As the police, you need to recognise the impact of not taking these “small things” seriously. They are both vital to identifying people who are potential threats to women and girls, and also part of a wider culture that holds women to impossible standards of “proper” behaviour whilst excusing male violence and intimidation.
There are many anecdotes of police officers not taking women and girls seriously when they express concerns. On nights out where women are particularly vulnerable, friends have told me stories of going to the police when their friend has had their drink spiked and the police laughing, asking, “Have you never seen someone drunk before?” This dismissal of women’s concerns, suggesting that they are overreacting, has potentially life-threatening consequences. Recent incidents of women being spiked through injections in a bar in Liverpool show that even if women do take precautions to be safe, attackers can find new ways to get to them. The lack of trust in women to understand from their own experience when they are in danger reflects a problem both within the culture of the police and wider society.
Listening to women and believing them when they express their concerns would be a small step on the road to better external protection.
On an institutional level, the Met in particular needs to start investigating their own. Wayne Couzens had colleagues, colleagues who nicknamed him “the rapist”. The warning signs were there for him to be investigated, yet nothing happened. Reacting post-tragedy is not enough; the Met needs to be proactive in monitoring individual officers and tackling the underlying culture that makes these assaults possible. Identifying troubling behaviour, reporting it, and removing the officers responsible is one way to prevent attacks. Over-analysing what could have been better months later in a formal report is not enough. Added to this would be improving the vetting process itself. Being part of the police force is a responsibility that should require certain standards of behaviour and these could be checked through a more thorough recruitment process that checks people’s histories of violent or threatening behaviour.
The government is also in need of some advice. Boris Johnson acknowledged that there is a problem with the tackling of violence against women and girls, but simultaneously encouraged people to trust the police. Some of the rhetoric is no doubt moving forwards, but these words mean little when it is not reflected in policy. One option would be making misogyny a hate crime, deliberately recognising the gendered nature of violence against women and girls, and recognising the ways in which this can be motivated by hateful attitudes towards women.
Another option, specifically in response to the case of Sarah Everard, would be to make tackling violence against women and girls a formal priority for policing units. The government decided against this, arguing in favour of flexibility of local units to decide their priorities, but women and girls (shockingly) live in every locality. Making violence against them a national priority at this time would both send a message that the government actually cares about tackling these issues and also practically enable policing units to directly focus on them.
Many people can relate to the feeling of danger when they did not realise how dark it had gotten and are walking home from their friend’s house, or the dread when they sense a car slowing down behind them. And though much of the advice to women about staying safe may come from a good place, it puts the responsibility on women to not be attacked, rather than targeting attackers. The sad reality is that none of the advice issued could have saved Sarah Everard. Women and girls deserve to feel safe to walk alone at any place and at any time. That is why the police and the government must focus on preventing people like Wayne Couzens from joining and continuing in the police force. They must make violence against women and girls a priority, not just in rhetoric, but in policy. The time for advice for women should end, instead, advice from women should be the new norm.
Illustration: Sarah Knight