by Martin Odoni

One of the biggest horror stories in the UK this year has undoubtedly been the rape and murder of Sarah Everard by an officer in the Metropolitan Police. The officer, Wayne Couzens, was rightly sentenced to “life-means-life” permanent custody last week.

R.I.P. Sarah Everard

The Met’s response to the dreadful affair has been to offer some extraordinary advice that would be seen as comical were the context not so devastating. They said anyone concerned for their safety when stopped by a police officer should shout out to a passer-by, run into a house, knock on a door, dial 999 or wave down a bus.

I am beyond numb at the stupidity of this advice, which fails on more levels than I thought was possible to exist for police advice. Below are the reasons that I have so far been able to think of why I find this stupid. I have no doubt there are more, and I welcome readers suggesting any they can think of in the comments.

  1. The advice is actually irrelevant. Sarah Everard was not, to the best of our knowledge, concerned for her safety when Couzens stopped her, and had no particular reason to doubt Couzens’ intentions. He was not a fake police officer, he was a corrupt police officer. He had identification proving he was a policeman. The poor woman’s only concern at that point was that she had been (falsely) convinced she had done something illegal.
  2. There are laws against resisting arrest, which would apply in at least some instances of being approached by police. The Met is therefore encouraging the public to break the law.
  3. What if there are no passers-by to call out to?
  4. What if the passers-by do not wish to get involved and ignore the calls?
  5. What if the passers-by are intimidated by threats from the would-be police officer?
  6. Run into a house? (Or knock on a door?) What if there is no house in the vicinity?
  7. What if the officer is blocking the only path to any houses nearby?
  8. What if the owner of the house does not want to let you in?
  9. What if the house is empty and the door is locked?
  10. What if it is past midnight and the occupants of the house are asleep, and therefore it will take them a while to get to the front door, if they are willing to answer at such an ungodly hour at all? How does the victim protect herself in the meantime?
  11. There are trespassing laws as well, you know, so again, the Met is potentially advising people to break the law.
  12. Wave down a bus? Wave down a bus?! What the blazes? The Met are now saying that it is not the job of the police to keep the public safe, but the job of bus companies to protect the public from the police? Carried to its logical conclusion, this is an actual argument for self-termination of the police force, because they are admitting they cannot control themselves, and are therefore a danger to the public!
  13. Again, what if there are no buses going past?
  14. What if the encounter with the policeman is not on a bus route at all?
  15. What if they are simply not near a bus stop? Drivers will not stop when you wave them down unless you are at a stop.
  16. What if the encounter is so late at night that no buses are running – hence a likely reason why the victim would be walking home in the first place?
  17. What if, in getting on the bus, the victim has no money, and so the driver will simply order her to get off again?
  18. Dial 999? Well, I hope the potential assailant will politely wait for his victim to dial, get put through to the correct service, and explain the situation to the officer on duty.
  19. Again, what if the victim has no mobile phone?
  20. What if there are no payphones nearby?
  21. What if the payphones have been vandalised and are out of order?
  22. What if the officer on duty confirms the ID of the officer making the approach? What protection does that give if the approaching officer has malign intentions anyway – as was the case with Couzens?
  23. If the officer gets aggressive with the victim in any way – for instance if he takes personally any implication that he is not genuine – the victim is likely to be intimidated into complete co-operation.

As I say, I have no doubt other people have thought of more than just these, but these alone are plenty in my mind to make the Met’s advice completely idiotic and futile. Cressida Dick has got to go. She is as much of a dinosaur as so many of her male counterparts.

Dick by name… I know, old joke

The reality is that Couzens is simply one more symptom of a far more fundamental issue than just the occasional ‘bent copper.’ British policing is corrupt. It is corrupted by a tendency to see Public Relations trickery as the most important skill when deciding who moves up the ranks (which is why deceitfulness tends to be more rife the further up the ladder of rank you look). But it is even more corrupted by the ‘fraternity’ attitude of a lot of officers at all levels. The tendency to close ranks and refuse to speak out when a colleague is breaking the rules is a very tribal and immature one. Even if it stems from an understable instinct – let us be honest and admit that we have all ‘covered’ for a colleague in our time – it simply should not be tolerated in a role as important as policing. It is a sign that the purpose of the police has become distorted. The police are protecting the police, and not the public. Indeed, the police are frequently a threat to the public.

Hence none of Couzens’ colleagues were willing to blow the whistle on his ugly behaviours that were a clear warning sign of his true nature. They even nicknamed him “The Rapist” behind the scenes, raising terrifying worries that Sarah Everard may not have been his only victim. Instead of stopping Couzens, officers in the Met showed far more interest in, and enthusiasm for, physically assaulting women for the apparent ‘felony’ of attending a vigil in Sarah’s memory. Interesting priorities for a force that is there to “protect the public,” and very much in-keeping with the outlook of Couzens himself.

It wasn’t even a protest or demonstration! It was just a vigil!

And the closed-ranks difficulty is exacerbated by the tendency of Police forces as organisations to want to keep things buried.

Corruption in the police becomes a major issue every few years. The problem is that public anger soon goes quiet again, and nothing is ever done to implement fundamental reform. Do not misunderstand me; Couzens is a monster and deserves every single minute of his permanent jailing. My worry is that he was not really given the sentence for that reason.

Instead, I fear it was to make it look like the British judicial system takes police criminality seriously. For months, any time there are complaints about the crime, the police can just point to last Thursday and say, “See? We do take this seriously and the criminal has been brought to justice!”

For all that he completely deserves it, Couzens is the scapegoat, taking all of the punishment for a vast problem of sleaze in British policing – especially in the upper echelons. Sure, it is good Couzens is permanently out of the reach of general society. But his penalty is only a weak substitute for disinfecting the culture that allowed him to flourish. It is the covering ‘anti-corruption’ gesture that will allow that culture to carry on without a break-in-stride.

When the furore dies down, everything will be as before, with the foetid culture of cover-up and closed-ranks deceit completely unaltered. How do I know this? Because I have already seen it, more than once before.

The last time the ghastly reality of UK police corruption was laid bare was the publication of the Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel nine years ago. It was the latest in a long series of revelations dating back to at least the trial of miners after the Battle Of Orgreave in 1985, and including the discovery of the stitch-ups of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four. All of these moments of revelation created a perfect opening for a widescale investigation into police corruption, which has been endemic across the country for decades, and to begin processes of reform. But the focus each time became too narrowly focused on the specific crimes themselves, and not on the context; not on the wider issues that they so strongly indicated were below the surface of policing on a nationwide scale.

Black people have been asking this question for decades. Is it not high time they and women had a definitive answer?

The die-down protects the police from ever needing to reform. Just a couple of years after the Hillsborough Report, the Tories felt safe to refuse to hold any kind of Inquiry into Orgreave, in which police violence, official corruption and fabrication of evidence were absolutely rampant.

Interest died down, complacency about how we are policed returned, and police powers have actually been allowed to become enlarged in the years that followed. As a country, the British remain too quick to bow down to authority.

We never learn. Until we do, there is every danger of another Wayne Couzens rearing his head*.


*POSTSCRIPT: Indeed another one may already have materialised; PC David Carrick, another Metropolitan Police officer, has been charged with rape as well, relating to a severe assault in September 2020. Cressida Dick’s response to the news has again been feeble and understated, expressing only that she was “deeply concerned.” If only she had been ‘deeply concerned’ a few years ago, much of this may not have happened. By now – while acknowledging that Carrick has not yet been tried and may be innocent – the culture that surrounds the Met is so pervasive that the mere fact an accusation has been made is very telling. Concern is not good enough, anything less than abject horror and disgust seems frankly inadequate.