Opinion

Sarah Everard: How many more women will be killed before crimes are taken seriously?

The publication of the Angiolini Inquiry has exposed fatal failings on the part of the police and called for a significant overhaul

Sarah Everard vigil

A vigil for Sarah Everard on Clapham Common was met with a police cordon owing to Covid restrictions, 13 March 2021. Image: JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images

It has been three years since the shocking murder of Sarah Everard at the hands of a serving police officer. Yet, we are still talking about rooting out rogue officers without the police taking serious action to address the systemic issue of misogyny at its core.  

For far too long a pervasive culture of misogyny has been allowed to run rampant throughout policing – and it is women who are paying the ultimate price. Within policing and our culture more broadly we must first recognise the grave threat misogynistic crimes pose in order to prevent their fatal escalation in the future. How many more women will be killed before crimes against women are taken seriously?  

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The recent Angiolini Inquiry revealed that police officer Wayne Couzens was reported to police eight times prior to murdering Sarah Everard. Among the crimes reported were the attempted kidnap of one woman at knifepoint, child sexual abuse and three instances of indecent exposure, one of which he committed just four days before killing Sarah. The police’s repeated failure to recognise and investigate Couzens’ pattern of predatory behaviour, as the very real and grave threat to women’s safety that it was, speaks to a culture of policing beset by misogyny.   

In our culture at large, we see violent acts of misogyny being downplayed, trivialised or altogether dismissed. Among his many crimes against women, Couzens’ act of indecent exposure is one that is commonly downplayed or even laughed off. Even the colloquial term for indecent exposure, ‘flashing’, lends itself to the idea of a lewd and boisterous act. Indecent exposure is a brazen crime.

To decide to commit it the perpetrator will already have bought into a gendered narrative which objectifies and degrades women. It is a glaring red flag that, as we see in the case of Couzens, ought to underscore a perpetrator’s capacity to commit further violent and abusive acts against women. The failure to recognise it as such is fatal.  

The normalisation of violent crimes against women is particularly alarming given that on average two women per week are killed by their current or former partner, and threats to women’s safety in public continue to soar. As a report by the UN revealed, 71% of women in the UK had experienced some form of sexual harassment in public, with higher rates of 86% for younger women (aged 18-24 years of age). Despite this shocking prevalence however, 95% of women in the UK do not report their experience of public sexual harassment. 

In a culture rife with misogyny, it is unsurprising that women don’t feel confident to report what is happening to them. According to a recent YouGov survey conducted by Refuge, 39% of women said they had not much or no trust in the police to handle the issue of violence against women and girls.  

In the three years since Sarah Everard’s murder the police’s inaction in the face of this bleak reality does little to recognise and respond to concerns for women and girls’ safety. Indeed, the conviction of another police officer, David Carrick, who admitted to 85 serious offences against women over the course of 17 years, highlights how a culture of impunity is rife throughout policing.

The Angiolini Inquiry’s stark warning that “without a significant overhaul there is nothing to stop another Wayne Couzens operating in plain sight” speaks volumes.   

While the government has announced, in response to the Angiolini Inquiry, that police officers charged with certain criminal offences will be automatically suspended, this simply does not go far enough to protect women and girls. Refuge is clear on the tangible actions that the police must take to go beyond lip service and ensure the safety of women and girls is put at the centre of policing:   

• Ensure police forces adequately respond to Violence Against Women and Girls-related offences. This should include updating national guidance on investigating sexual offences to recognise the seriousness of all VAWG offences, particularly ‘indecent exposure’, where a false and widely held perception of it as a ‘low level’ offence among police officers is giving perpetrators scope to continue and escalate their abuse.  

• Suspend officers and staff in policing accused of violence against women and girls pending quick and thorough investigation.   

• Urgently improve vetting standards across all police forces. There should be zero tolerance to misogyny within policing.   

• Provide mandatory training for police officers on how to respond to VAWG. Particularly on training police officers how to respond to disclosures of sexual offending, to increase survivor engagement with and confidence in the criminal justice system.  

• Reform to policing is a matter of national urgency. We simply cannot wait for more women to be killed before the police choose to act. Together, we can demand change.   

Amy Bowdrey is policy and public affairs officer at Refuge. You can be a part of Refuge’s call for change by signing the petition. 

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