As each day passed with the trial of police officer Wayne Couzens, jailed for a whole life term for the horrific kidnap, rape and murder of Sarah Everard, it has become increasingly apparent that the Met and the UK police more broadly have a problem with institutional prejudice. Are the police in denial, and if so, why? Could it be that as a society we have become so politically correct that we can’t see what’s staring us in the face? My latest novel, Murder in the Manor, touches on the issue of homophobia in a remote part of Norfolk and also suggests that the police themselves may be homophobic. Not only some friends with whom I shared the first draft felt this couldn’t be stated in blanket terms, but also I had discussions about the issue with my publisher’s editors. People are tempted to believe the “one bad apple” theory. After all, aren’t there plenty safeguards within police procedures to keep us safe? Yet now it’s known that Couzens was part of a WhatsApp group which exchanged overtly abusive content, including jokes about violence against women, racist messages and information about Couzens’ prosecution. One of the officers now under investigation for gross misconduct is from Norfolk, where my crime novels are set. This is not just a London problem. My own research for Murder in the Manor threw up plenty anecdotal reports about racism, homophobia and misogyny in constabularies across the country. So how come the police authorities have been so slow to act against what is now being described as institutional prejudice? I suspect that it could it be the same political correctness that delayed the investigations into the sex trafficking of white girls in Rochdale and Rotherham because the perpetrators were overwhelmingly of Pakistani origin. So far the Met’s reaction has been far from satisfactory in the wake of the Sarah Everard killing. The Met chief, Cressida Dick, was right to say that Couzens has “brought shame” on the force. But her apologies are not enough. Couzens was clearly not a “rogue” officer. She must resign to allow a root and branch reform of the police force whose practices have left all women wary of the very people who are supposed to protect us.
Why did I choose a place to live just two minutes walk from a tube station, and across the street from a bus stop?
As any woman would tell you, safety has been inculcated into us since we were young. You never know when you might have to make a dash for the front door. Not for me, a long trek home at night in an ill-lit street. The last few days since the shocking death of Sarah Everard have seen an outpouring of stories from women who have been harmed in some way by men. Their stories range from rape and sexual harassment to tales of everyday street abuse as described by Marine Hyde in her column yesterday.
But what is particularly distressing about Sarah Everard’s case was not just that the 33 year old marketing executive was abducted while walking home by a complete stranger who then murdered her. The man accused of her kidnap and murder is a serving police officer – one of the very people who are supposed to keep us safe. I’m a crime writer, and you couldn’t make this up.
Women all over the land are incensed. We want to mark Sarah’s death and focus minds on the much bigger picture so that women can #Reclaimthestreets. If something like this doesn’t galvanise opinion, whatever will? Yet how did the Metropolitan police react after the High Court declined to rule on the holding of 6pm vigils today? By telling women to stay at home rather than attend. The reason evoked was that a vigil would breach the Covid lockdown rules. This is deeply wrong. The police should be making amends at this point, given that one of their own is the prime suspect in this murder. Why didn’t they facilitate Covid-compliant vigils? Aren’t we familiar with the necessary social distancing and mask wearing by now? And as plenty people have pointed out today, how come the police have tolerated crowds on recent sunny days on Clapham Common, near where Sarah Everard disappeared, yet threatened the organisers of the #Reclaimthestreets vigil with massive fines, forcing them to propose an online tribute instead.
So what could I do with my sadness and rage? I decided to go to Clapham Common just before the witching hour of 6pm. I found about a hundred people, and a mountain of flowers, at the bandstand which has become an informal shrine to Sarah’s memory. One placard in big orange letters said #I AM SARAH, another #RECLAIMTHESTREETS. There were people of all ages standing there, some in silence while others talked to their companions about what had happened. Hundreds of others, including lots of young women, continued to arrive with more flowers while I stood there in the bitter cold. There had been a steady stream of people to the bandstand today, including the Duchess of Cambridge. After 6, the police were booed by the crowd for trying to shut down the protest.
How could they have got public sentiment so wrong? Did nobody tell the head of the Metropolitan Police (a woman) that old joke: Q: What’s the worst thing that a woman can do to a man? A: Laugh at him.
Q; What’s the worst thing that a man can do to a woman? A: Kill her.
Nobody’s laughing now.