When DCI Simon Harding said that police officers viewed Wayne Couzens not as a police officer who was a murderer but as “a murderer who happened to be a police officer”, he was perhaps telling us more than he meant to about police culture. You might think that his cue came from the very top, after, in June, Dame Cressida Dick described the police as a body where you might find an “occasional bad’un”.
Everything that has come out in the last week – the fact that fellow officers nicknamed Couzens “the rapist”; that he and other officers shared racist, misogynistic and homophobic messages in a private Whatsapp group; not to mention further historic allegations of indecent exposure – has shown that Couzens was not an anomaly: he was merely a symptom.
For those of us specialising in civil actions against the police on behalf of women, nothing that we heard was a surprise. In recent months the news has been full of highly concerning indicators of systemic misogyny within the police force. The Met officer accused of rape by two colleagues, who was not suspended from duty. The Surrey police officer convicted of two counts of rape, one of which took place while he was on duty. The Met police officers who took photos of themselves next to the dead bodies of murdered Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman.
And the problem is not just with police misconduct: it’s also with how police officers are treated when their wrongdoing is uncovered. Nearly a quarter of all referrals received by the IOPC (the Independent Office for Police Conduct) relate to allegations of abuse of power for sexual gains. Details of these allegations include requesting sexual favours in exchange for pursuing or not pursuing a police function, as well as conducting inappropriate or unnecessary searches. Yet between 2017 and 2020, more than half of metropolitan police officers found to have committed sexual misconduct kept their jobs.
Is it any surprise, then, that the culture of misogyny persists within police forces up and down the country? On my own desk, as I write, are the cases of women who have turned to police for help only to be mocked, belittled, and ignored.
Shana Grice, whose parents I act for, reported her ex-boyfriend to the police five times for stalking her. She was given a warning for wasting police time. Then he murdered her. Emails about another client between police officers revealed that they had described her rape allegation as “plainly b******s”, and mocked the account she had given. In that case, independent evidence supporting her claim of rape was mis-read by a junior officer, resulting in no further action being taken against the perpetrator.
The much-publicised figures released in March showing that just 1.6% of rapes reported to the police led to a conviction, confirmed what we already knew: that police forces, as they currently operate, are not serving women who are victims of crime. At times, they are even actively harming them.
If the Inquiry into the murder of Sarah Everard and the history of Wayne Couzens is to achieve anything, it must be a thorough and forensic examination of the myriad ways in which the police have failed, and continue to fail, women. Anything less than that means it is only a matter of time until the next Couzens shows himself.