Sometimes an event becomes a parable of a nation. Sometimes an event turns into a catalyst for change. The murder of Stephen Lawrence led to a major reassessment of the culture of racism within the Metropolitan Police. The case of Harold Shipman prompted a vast review of the safeguards in the palliative care profession. If anything at all is to be redeemed from the horrific murder of Sarah Everard it can only be if the case becomes a parable and a catalyst for change.
Every commentator on the case has expressed their horror, and righteous disgust is appropriate. But it is time now for the fury to become colder and to be translated into action. The police cannot lightly brush off the fact that Wayne Couzens was an officer of the law. He used his status to entice Ms Everard into his car. He used the temporary Covid-19 laws and his handcuffs to make what he described as an arrest.
As Lord Justice Fulford said when issuing a life sentence, abuse of his position was vital in allowing Couzens to rape and murder Ms Everard.
Violence against women is so endemic, so sadly routine, that this case cannot be categorised as the work of a loner or a volatile maverick. As Jess Phillips MP pointed out in the Commons, we can hardly describe extreme violence against women as “rare” when six others and a small girl were reportedly killed by men in the week after Ms Everard was abducted.
The horrendous truth is that many such cases can be avoided, if only we took them more seriously. Couzens displayed some of the characteristics of offenders and none of them were picked up and acted upon by the police. He had been the subject of allegations of indecent exposure on three separate occasions. He was known to be interested in violent pornography. Former colleagues at the Civil Nuclear Constabulary are said to have referred to him as “the rapist”. When Couzens moved to the Met, no mention was made of the fact that, in 2015, he had been reported for driving naked from the waist down.
As the Chief Inspector of Constabulary Sir Tom Winsor has said, this raises the question of a male culture that closes ranks. When a warning flag ought to be raised, everybody’s hand goes down. Couzens was involved in a sexual incident just days before he murdered Ms Everard. This is exactly the sort of culture that Sir William Macpherson excoriated as “institutionally racist” in 1999. It wouldn’t be a surprise to learn that the culture is institutionally sexist, perhaps even misogynistic, today. Sexual misconduct is regarded as a minor infraction rather than the sign of something terrible to come. Couzens had already done enough to be expelled from the police. The culture and the rules have to change.
The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) yesterday gave cursory details of its investigations into the conduct of police officers sharing graphic images and privileged information over WhatsApp. There has to be a bigger and bolder plan than this.
The tenure of Dame Cressida Dick as Met Commissioner is on the line. She needs to act, in concert with Priti Patel, the Home Secretary.
The Labour Party has made two proposals that should be pursued. In a letter to the Home Secretary yesterday, the Labour shadow Nick Thomas-Symonds demanded an independent inquiry to look at safeguarding and the efficiency of police vetting procedures.
Labour also demanded the use of the law to ensure tougher sentences for crimes of a sexual nature. This was a theme that Sir Keir Starmer picked up in his speech to the party conference in which he reported how shocked he had been to discover that 98 per cent of reported rape cases don’t end up with a criminal charge. This is a systematic failure, a crisis in governance and in care.
Sir Keir had been introduced to the stage by Baroness Doreen Lawrence whose dignified words were a reminder both that racism is not a settled issue in Britain but that a great deal did change as a result of her son’s murder in 1993. In 1999, Macpherson’s inquiry into the police turned the sorry story into a parable for change. After the death of Victoria Climbié in 2000 at the hands of her great-aunt and her boyfriend, the Laming report led ultimately to the Children Act 2004, through the inquiry process known as Every Child Matters. The brutal murder of Ms Everard needs to lead to lasting change, through a process known as Every Woman Matters. For women walking the streets of London tonight, it cannot feel like they matter anything like enough at the moment.