Opinion

Police failings over Sarah Everard's killer shows how we're still failing survivors of sexual offences

The failure to identify Wayne Couzens as a threat is the devastating result of police failing to adequately investigate indecent exposure

A memorial to Sarah Everard at the bandstand on Clapham Common. Sarah Everard Image: amer ghazzal/Alamy Live News

By revealing how many chances police missed to investigate Wayne Couzens over 20 years before his abduction, rape and murder of Sarah Everard, the Angiolini Inquiry highlighted the potentially deadly consequences of police devaluing so-called ‘low-level’ sexual offences like indecent exposure. 

With charges being brought in less than 2% of rape reports, never mind more trivialised forms of harassment, survivors need a way to hold officers who fail them to account. That’s why we’re campaigning for the Gaia Principle, an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill, which would mean that an officer who can’t do their job can lose their job.  

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Among a number of other offences, including a serious assault on a teenage girl, the Angiolini Inquiry revealed that Couzens indecently exposed himself to members of the public from his car in Dover in June 2015. Despite identifying Couzens as the suspect, Kent Police closed the case without investigation. This missed opportunity allowed him to continue working in the police, a position he’d go on to abuse when using his warrant card and handcuffs to kidnap Sarah Everard in March 2021.  

This is the devastating result of police failing to adequately investigate indecent exposure. It is also an injustice to the victims, who see that it is not a crime that is taken seriously and often internalise this, downplaying the severity of their own experience which makes it even more difficult to access the support they need.  

When working as an Independent Sexual Violence Advocate, I cannot tell you how many times I heard a survivor say “it could’ve been worse, at least it wasn’t rape”, as if care, attention, specialist support and an adequate police investigation should be reserved only for victims of select sex offences.  

But indecent exposure comes with its unique trauma, the violating effects of which can have long-term impacts. Those who experience it deserve to be taken seriously. Too often officers dismiss the case and the survivor along with it – despite the fact it can often be a warning sign that more serious abuse may have taken place or be likely to take place in the future. People who commit indecent exposure are likely to go on to commit other sex offences. This was precisely the case with Couzens.  

Had he faced prosecution or misconduct proceedings, he could not have used the guise of police powers to kidnap, rape and murder Sarah Everard. Angiolini concludes that the officers who responded to the June 2015 case “were not adequately trained, equipped or motivated to investigate the allegations properly” and that “the actions of the officer fell far short of what would be expected of a competent Police Constable”. However, the apathy of poorly trained, incompetent officers unwilling to conduct sufficient investigations is not unique to Kent Police.  

At The Gemini Project we are always hearing from survivors of sexual offences who have been failed by poor policing. Too often, no further action is incorrectly taken when officers neglect to consider all the evidence available to them. Frontline support workers spend a significant amount of time reminding police of their duties under the law by asking them to look again and reconsider their judgement in light of the facts that were already available to them. Too many survivors have been denied the justice they deserve because police cannot follow basic processes.  

With forces failing us at every turn, the time to let police police themselves is over. We need accountability for victims who have been failed. Nothing less than the Gaia Principle will do.  

Verity Nevitt is the co-founder of The Gemini Project.

The Gemini Project is a grassroots, survivor- led non-profit working to end sexual violence. Find out more and take action to support the Gaia Principle campaign here

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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