Right now we are all feeling a mix of horror, grief and anger after the gut-wrenching victim statements from Sarah Everard’s heartbroken and deeply traumatised family, daily forced to relive the horror of their daughter’s horrendous murder by police officer Wayne Couzens. Kidnapped, handcuffed, raped and then strangled by a policeman’s belt by a serving police officer who used both his authority and the pandemic to trick her into his van.
The detail is sickening, horrifying. We women feel a return to a deep well of anger and resentment — we have warned society again and again to take sexual harassment seriously. What is emerging is that there were opportunities to stop Couzens, who was nicknamed “the rapist” by colleagues. Once, six years ago, when he was accused of indecent exposure, and then again just days before Ms Everard was killed. There are clear links between more minor sexual offences and further violence.
In another disgusting detail, the IOPC is also investigating claims that a Met constable at the murder scene allegedly shared an “inappropriate graphic” with colleagues. Then there is Sarah’s mother’s statement that every night she silently screams, ‘don’t get in the car, run!’, which will resonate with every member of the British public and be seared into their consciousness. I sure hope so.
What feels particularly depressing is that despite the #MeToo campaigns and the hashtags over the past few years, not much has changed where it really matters. What could matter more than feeling safe on the streets? I was flashed 20 years ago in London, chased down a street in Notting Hill at 6pm, with a man trying desperately to ejaculate on me. I stopped a police car having out-run him, told the story, shivering in disgust and fury, and the young male police officer didn’t even bother to contain his hilarity.
A year later, I had a stalker who posted pictures to my house of himself ejaculating over my photograph cut out of this newspaper, with accompanying letters saying he knew where I lived and he was going to break in, murder my boyfriend and rape me and then kill me. When I first took these polaroids to the police, the young man at the desk passed the photographs around the men beyond him and made jokes. I flipped. Rightly so.
Five years ago, walking home at 6pm, I passed a man in a sidestreet who was sitting in the front seat, his penis exposed while he masturbated. That road is used as a short-cut by many teenage girls coming back from school.
I rang the local station immediately, and to their credit they had police cars there within five minutes. However, I was shortly rung by a female police officer who said they had found no evidence of his behaviour and then questioned whether I was telling the truth. I found myself in the ridiculous position of listing my job, explaining I was a mother and inviting the officer to come and meet me before she questioned whether I was a liar wasting police time. I pointed out the obvious: just because she hadn’t found semen-soaked tissues in his car, I wasn’t blind or a fantasist.
Now, I find myself endlessly explaining to men (and some women) that women being sexually harassed in the street isn’t just about wolf-whistling from builders — it’s about men making threatening gestures towards us in the street. This also happened to me with my two young sons outside my home in broad daylight. I reported this too because of the hatred in that man’s eyes and the sexual nature of his violent gestures towards me.
A young woman may have died because allegations against Couzens were not taken seriously. What else do I need to say? What else do any of us need to say? How many more stories do we need to repeat before we are listened to?
Emily Sheffield is Editor of the Evening Standard