Who will police the police?

On Thursday, Sarah Everard’s murderer was sentenced to ‘whole life’ in prison. A serving Metropolitan police officer at the time, he used his position of power to falsely arrest Sarah, and then raped, tortured and murdered her.

This sentencing happened on the same day that another man appeared in court charged with the brutal murder of Sabina Nessa. It also happened just days after the anniversary of the death of Blessing Olusegun, found dead in Bexhill in September 2020. Sussex Police have been criticised for dismissing her mysterious drowning as not suspicious. It comes as campaigners are still awaiting justice for Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, the murdered sisters of whose bodies police officers took inappropriate pictures that they then shared on WhatsApp. And it was yet another murder where the police were criticised for being slow to investigate.

So far this year, over 100 women have been killed in the UK at the hands of men

Thursday was also the day that Kate Wilson won her tribunal against the undercover police officer who tricked her into having a sexual relationship with him for two years, when he was investigating her campaign group’s environmental activism. The married police officer may have had deceptive sexual relationships with as many as 10 other women during this time. Let’s be clear about this – these are all acts of rape.

Can women trust the police?

So far this year, over 100 women have been killed in the UK at the hands of men – and those are just the ones we know about.

Against this backdrop of senseless acts of violence against women, and where so many members of the police force are found to be either responsible or reprehensible, how are women supposed to feel safe on our streets? If the very people whose primary job is to protect us are instead disregarding or mocking or killing us, what protection is there?

Can women trust the police? And perhaps more importantly, should we?

Abuse of power

In London, 160 Met police officers have been charged with sexual misconduct in the last two years. The force has been found to be institutionally racist in a damning report issued over two decades ago, and a recent investigative report by Byline Times found that half of the Metropolitan police officers found guilty of sexual misconduct over a four-year period to 2020 remained in their jobs. Lord Paddick, a former deputy assistant commissioner, has said there is “widespread” sexism in the metropolitan police. But little, if anything, has been done.

According to the Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner annual report 2020/21, there were 13,554 reports of stalking and harassment in our county that year alone – a 371% increase since 2015/16. It is also interesting to note that 91% of Sussex Police officers identify as white and 64% as male.

Two hundred complaints were made against Sussex Police officers between 1 February 2020 and 31 March 2021 (a period where most of us were confined to our homes, so a time when police interactions across the country were at a record low), although only 10% of these complaints were upheld.

Both Sussex Police and the Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner ignored my request for information and discussion on this issue. East Sussex County Council and West Sussex County Council both declined to comment.

Police officers need remedial training

However, Kahina Bouhassane, Chair of Brighton and Hove Green Party and a former Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner candidate, says: “We need to support groups working with men to shape a different sense of what being a man is about, with equality, consent and respect at its heart. The Police and Crime Commissioner, and other elected officials, should be working with organisations such as Beyond Equality to pioneer these projects.

Bouhassane points out the need for reforms within the police itself. “Where better to start such training than within the force itself, given that there are twice as many men as women in the force as a whole, and – at Inspector level – men outnumber women by four to one, she says. “We need officers to take women reporting offences seriously, and not to dismiss or minimise their experiences.

Catherine told me that she was groped in November 2018 by a man who had earlier identified himself as an off-duty police officer. She reported the incident, but Sussex Police never followed it up.

From recent personal observations, she says the level of sensitivity and understanding from officers is extremely patchy. “There seems to be a significant lack of training for officers on how to handle gender-based crimes and this has to change if we want women to feel comfortable coming forward. Police and Crime Commissioners need to make women’s safety a priority and fund it accordingly, and we need to see this commitment from central government too.”

Sussex women lose faith in the police

Speaking to women in Sussex, the mood regarding the police is one of scepticism. One woman named Catherine told me that she was groped in November 2018 by a man who had earlier identified himself as an off-duty police officer. She reported the incident, but Sussex Police never followed it up. “That was the first and only incident of sexual violence I have ever reported,” says Catherine, “and I would not do so again as it felt pointless.

Another Sussex resident told me that they were “told by a serving Sussex officer that his commanding officer once sarcastically told him ‘we don’t racially profile’ while nodding his head conspicuously when they were looking for suspects at a large outdoor event.

The problem with all of this advice is that it puts the onus on women to solve the problem of male violence against them.

Not everyone feels this way about the police, though. Vicky, who’s raising her young daughter in Sussex, said: “Of course you can trust the police! When you think about the percentage of the entire country’s police force that has been involved with this it is relatively small. If you lose your faith in something that is there to protect you, then what else have you got?

This question is one that seems to hang over a lot of people across the country right now – they are desperate to retain their trust in the police because the alternative is too frightening to contemplate.

Taking responsibility

The advice to women on keeping themselves safe has been unhelpful, to say the least.

The Met have been widely criticised after suggesting that women who fear they may be being arrested unlawfully, like Sarah Everard, should “wave down a bus” for help. The force also said that women should be “wary” if they were approached by a lone officer, with no explanation of what good that would do.  

Sarah Everard’s murderer was not only nicknamed “the rapist” by colleagues due to his penchant for violent pornography, but had been reported, just two days earlier, for indecent exposure.

Home Secretary Priti Patel said that she had been “putting forward questions” to the Metropolitan Police about checks in place to prevent abuses of power, but did not clarify whether she had actually had any responses or what plans were underway.

The charity Making Herstory shared guidance on what women can do if being arrested by a lone officer, which included refusing handcuffs, asking for a female police officer to be called and refusing to enter a vehicle. They acknowledged that this was unlikely to make much difference in the case of a violent attack like that of Sarah Everard, but also said, “sadly this is all we have for now.”

Who polices the police?

The problem with all of this advice, however well-meaning, is that it puts the onus on women to solve the problem of male violence against them. Even the elected police and crime commissioner for North Yorkshire, Philip Allott, suggested that Sarah Everard was partly at fault during a radio interview, sparking outrage and calls for him to resign. He has so far failed to do so, though has since apologised for what he termed his “insensitive” remarks.

So what are the police doing to ensure these so-called “bad apples” aren’t able to abuse their power? How are they being held to account, and by whom?

It has been discovered that Sarah Everard’s murderer was not only nicknamed “the rapist” by colleagues due to his penchant for violent pornography, but had been reported, just two days earlier, for indecent exposure. He was also in a WhatsApp group with other serving and former police officers from a variety of forces where they shared discriminatory and misogynistic messages which were “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”. No action has yet been taken against any of these officers, and it has been decided that investigating the involvement of the murderer himself “would not further the interests of justice”.

Any lessons that can be learned from this, then, are likely to be limited. But it must haunt Sarah’s loved ones to realise that, had any of these officers reported this behaviour, she might still be alive today.

Stopping systemic misogyny

So what steps are the police, our local councils and our wider community doing to stop systemic attitudes of misogyny that lead to violence? It’s hard to know, since Sussex Police and the County Councils didn’t want to talk to me.

This is a systematic problem and it needs systematic solutions,” says Kahina Bouhassane. “Too often the focus is on how women should ‘manage’ their behaviour to ‘avoid’ harassment. Personally, I’m sick of it. There is too little focus where it should be: on challenging male perpetrators and the culture of toxic masculinity that promotes and enables street harassment. It is not all men, but it is all women that suffer as a result.

Hopefully Sussex Police and our town, district and county councils will now be looking at meaningful measures to protect women, educate men, and prevent institutional misconduct. But we’re yet to see any indication that such urgently needed plans are in the works.   

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