‘Culture of impunity’: Sarah Everard shows allegations of violence against police officers are not taken seriously

Exclusive: ‘The police can’t respond to this by saying: ‘Don’t worry, this is just an isolated problem’,’ says UK’s domestic abuse commissioner

Maya Oppenheim
Women’s Correspondent
Thursday 30 September 2021 18:59
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<p>Couzens, a convicted murder and rapist, was sentenced to a whole-life prison term and will die in jail </p>

Couzens, a convicted murder and rapist, was sentenced to a whole-life prison term and will die in jail

The murder of Sarah Everard by a serving Met Police officer is symptomatic of the police not taking allegations of sexual violence and domestic abuse against officers seriously due to a “culture of impunity”, experts have warned.

Campaigners told The Independent women have lost yet more faith in the police after new “horrific details” emerged about Ms Everard’s death.

Wayne Couzens was sentenced to a whole-life prison term on Thursday and will die in jail. The Old Bailey heard how he used coronavirus lockdown restrictions to falsely arrest the 33-year-old marketing executive before kidnapping, raping and strangling her.

Nicole Jacobs, the UK’s domestic abuse commissioner, said: “The police can’t respond to this by saying: ‘Don’t worry, this is just an isolated problem’. They cannot take the view this is one terrible example.

“What is really weighing on my mind today is thinking about the thousands of sexual violence survivors in positions where they need to reach out to police, who will be thinking how do I do that, who may be fearful.

“And there are higher numbers of women who feel unsafe walking on the streets - as I do - thinking of the horror of how easily Wayne Couzens kidnapped Sarah Everard.”

The commissioner said there are high rates of sexual harassment and violence in “every walk of life” and police forces are not immune from this.

“Someone who is quite controlling in their nature will be attracted to anything which gives them power and control, such as the police force,” Ms Jacobs added.

She argued women and girls’ faith in the entire criminal justice system is “incredibly low” due to historically low rape convictions and a five-year trend of decreasing domestic abuse convictions.

She added: “It is not about one bad apple. The murders of Sarah Everard, Bibaa Henry, Nicole Smallman, and Sabina Nessa need to be placed in this wider context of failure.

“More than ever, the police, in every force across the country, has got to immediately step up, to really make sure vetting and training addresses concerns in the force.”

Couzens abducted Ms Everard while she walked home from a friend's house in Clapham in south London on 3 March. Her disappearance and death spawned a wave of anger and protests, with women sharing personal stories of sexual harassment and assault in public spaces.

Nogah Ofer, solicitor at the Centre for Women's Justice, a legal charity which tackles violence against women, told The Independent there is a “culture of impunity” within the police due to officers protecting each other.

She added: “The picture we have seen, from all the cases we’ve had, is when women come forward and report abuse by a police officer, others within that same force are loyal, trivialising violence against women.

“Other officers protect officers accused. In lots of cases, the investigator is friends with the officer. They may be Facebook friends or play on the same football team.

“The problem is not having proper robust investigations and investigations being brushed under the carpet.”

Ms Ofer noted research conducted in the US found higher levels of domestic abuse in policing families than the general population due to police officers having more authoritarian personalities which do not like being challenged.

“What is really important is how forces respond to reports of abuse,” she added. “If someone reports domestic abuse or sexual violence and no action is taken, that officer can be working with vulnerable victims. That undermines public confidence in the police, as people are reporting to an officer who is an abuser themselves.”

Harriet Wistrich, director of the Centre for Women’s Justice, said the “horrific details” which have emerged from Couzens’ sentencing demonstrate the police’s lack of ability to “deal adequately with their own”.

“Whilst it is rare for a police officer to murder a woman, this case is not unique,” she added. “It is horrifying to learn of previous allegations against Couzens for indecent exposure.”

The award-winning human rights lawyer warned there is a “boys’ locker room culture” among police as she noted a super-complaint against the police which her organisation launched demonstrates there “are far too many victims of police perpetrated abuse”.

She added: “Over 150 such women have come forward to us since we launched the report 18 months ago and many women are fearful of reporting such crimes because they cannot trust the police to investigate. Where they do report, they are frequently failed.”

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