From the moment Sarah Everard was stopped by Wayne Couzens, she probably never had a chance. He was armed with a police badge, belt and handcuffs; with strength, power and authority. The lockdown laws, which have hugely expanded police discretion,were ripe for abuse. In coming weeks, many senior voices in the police, politics and media will claim that Couzens was a single bad apple in an otherwise functional system. But we must not budge until there are fundamental changes in how we fund and train the police, and how we legislate around crime.
Those who consistently warn against excessive police power don’t do so because they are “soft on crime” or think the police are a wicked breed apart. Police officers inevitably reflect wider society, with all its misogyny, racism and corruption, alongside its nobler qualities of courage and public service. A senior investigator told Sky News that police officers “do not view Wayne Couzens as a police officer”. I have no doubt of the sincerity of his disgust, but magical thinking will not change the fact that Couzens was indeed a police officer, and was even selected and trained to hold firearms.
The commissioner of the Metropolitan police, Cressida Dick, was more philosophical when speaking after Couzens admitted to the offences in June. “I have 44,000 people working in the Met. Sadly some of them are abused at home, for example, and sadly on occasion, I have a bad ’un.” Dick’s excuses and informal tone seemed more appropriate for describing errant children. In light of what she must have known about Everard’s abduction, rape and murder when Couzens was arrested and then charged in March, Dick’s policing decisions around the Clapham Common vigil that took place only days afterwards seem even more mind-blowingly insensitive.
We learned from the trial this week that at least three accusations of indecent exposure had been made against Couzens (the first was as far back as 2015, and the last only days before Everard’s murder). Urgent answers are now required as to how he was allowed to remain in service. We also learned that the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) is currently investigating other serving and former officers in relation to the case. Surely nothing short of a full, Stephen Lawrence-style judicial inquiry into the specific case and the broader police culture around misogyny and violence against women will do?
The dire prosecution rates for sex offences and the appalling neglect of victims of domestic abuse, both exacerbated by pandemic lockdowns and a decade of underfunding, ensure that many perpetrators never even get caught. It does not matter whether Couzens was, to quote Dick, “abused at home” or not. Ordinary citizens don’t have the luxury of arguing that we “do not view him as one of us”.
Whether or not you subscribe to the exceptionalist “bad ’un” theory of history, enshrining law and order and protecting the vulnerable is about ensuring we have checks and balances to prevent abuses of power. Over the last quarter of a century in Britain, many of these protections have been cast aside by successive governments. Cuts to legal aid, together with the decision to absorb the Legal Aid Agency into the Ministry of Justice, have made it harder than ever for ordinary citizens to fund actions against the police.
Stop and search without even reasonable suspicion is now a daily fact of life for black communities in particular. Legal advice and video recording in police stations, hard-won protections that mitigate against abuses of power, do not exist on the street. At busy times, there is some informal protection from passers-by who will challenge apparently heavy-handed policing and record it on their mobile phones. By contrast, the quiet evening streets of a London lockdown were a predator’s paradise.
A vital deterrent against abuses of police power is the principle and possibility that officers might be prosecuted like anyone else.Yet in March, only a few days before Everard’s murder, the bipartisan Covert Human Intelligence (Criminal Conduct) Act passed. This will allow undercover officers and even their agents among the criminal fraternity to be licensed to commit crime in advance of an operation, with total immunity from prosecution afterwards.
How can this stand after yesterday’s decision by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal that the Met Police’s use of “spy-cops” in the late 1990s and early 2000s violated a number of the rights of protesters, including inhuman and degrading treatment, privacy and discrimination? Kate Wilson was subjected to years of unlawful surveillance, deception and sex by undercover officer Mark Stone. No doubt this will also be dismissed as bad behaviour by a “bad ’un”, rather than something deserving of systemic attention.
Instead of addressing such abuses, the government is set to give yet more powers to the police. Priti Patel’s police bill, which will soon return to parliament, contains even more broad powers, ripe for abuse against vulnerable women protesters who make too much noise and travellers who “intend to reside” on land without permission. Does anyone really believe that the police need more powers rather than better leadership, vetting and resources? If politicians are to learn anything from the murder of Sarah Everard, it should be to vote for, not simply emote about, the protection of women.