Will the justice system ever care about women?
Sarah Everard’s death has highlighted a long buried and muted issue – that the justice system doesn’t take women’s safety seriously.
Wayne Couzens, the serving Met Police officer who is to go on trial for her kidnapping and murder, had been reported to have exposed himself at McDonald’s in South London just three days earlier. Whilst the Met Police should have taken action then, especially as the incident was also allegedly caught on CCTV, he was allowed to continue working, finishing his last shift the morning of Sarah’s disappearance. If the matter had been taken seriously, and escalated quickly enough, Couzens would have automatically had his firearm licence revoked, and he would have been suspended from his duty instantly. The Met Police’s failure to escalate the matter quickly has triggered numerous allegations that they simply did not take it seriously enough, and this is now being investigated by the IOPC. Is their failure to act a symptom of the institution not taking women and their safety seriously enough?
Reports from a woman named Georgina are only adding fuel to these flames. She says she reported an incident of a man exposing himself when she was on her way home from last Saturday’s protests in Clapham Common. A female officer agreed to address the situation then, but a male officer stopped her, saying ‘no, we've had enough with the rioters tonight, we're not dealing with it’. Two female police officers are now handling the case, but the initial refusal from the male police officer shows what might be a problem of male officers outnumbering female officers in the Met by more than 2.5 to 1.
Allegations of ‘institutional misogyny’ are now plaguing the Met, with the rumble growing louder after police tried to forcefully quash Saturday’s vigil in Clapham Common. Five officers from the Hampshire Police were sacked after making racist and sexist comments. Instances of police officers trivialising serious crimes and deaths have surfaced, such as in the case of Mina Smallman. Her two daughters were stabbed to death, and she later found that police officers involved in their case had taken pictures of their bodies and shared them, and one had allegedly taking a selfie at the crime scene. In the case of Sarah Everard too, a police officer who was guarding search cordons has been removed from duty after he shared an ‘inappropriate graphic’ on WhatsApp with colleagues.
Debaleena Dasgupta, a solicitor at the Centre for Women’s Justice told The Guardian that she believes police are failing women. The Centre filed a super-complaint last year, which highlighted almost 700 reports over three years of police officers, community support officers and staff from 30 of 43 of England and Wales’ police forces perpetrating domestic abuse.
Dasgupta highlighted the UN Women UK research about the extent of sexual harassment in the country. It found that 97% of women aged 18-24 said they had been sexually harassed, and 80% of women of all ages said they had been sexually harassed in a public space. A YouGov survey of over 1000 women found that 96% of respondents didn’t report incidents, with 45% saying that they believe that reporting would change nothing.
Damning statistics show that the criminal justice system seems to let victims down. Rape conviction rates in England and Wales are the lowest since 2008. In the year to March 2020, 58,856 cases of rape were recorded by police in England and Wales, but these resulted in only 2,102 prosecutions, compared to 3,043 the year before. Rape prosecutions by the Crown Prosecution Service have fallen over the past few years. One reason for this is that there have been fewer referrals by police, which is thought to be because of a fall in the amount of successful convictions. In 2019, it was also revealed that the CPS had a secret conviction rate target to have 60% of rape cases end in conviction. This may have caused prosecutors to drop weak or more challenging cases.
Is it a lack of resources? Police have expressed that forces have been stretched in enforcing Covid lockdowns, as well as responding to increased reports of domestic abuse. In 2018, Sara Thornton, former chairwoman of the National Police Chief’s Council said "We just do not have the resources to do everything that is desirable and deserving". Police staff and funding cuts have been attributed to the 39% rise in homicide rates between 2015 and 2019.
The new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill doubles the Safer Streets fund to £45m. A five-point plan, agreed by Boris Johnson and the government’s Criminal Justice Taskforce also promises more money for better CCTV and lighting, undercover police at bars and clubs at night, and £11m to increase the number of sexual violence advisors to support victims. Tories have also pledged to recruit 20,000 more police officers, as well increasing core funding by £1.1billion. But will this be effective enough? Well, chucking money won’t necessarily change mindsets.
Whilst the Bill promises harsher sentencing for sex and violent offenders, the issue is more about changing the way people think. Training officers to not be sexist, and encouraging more women to join the police force to transform it should be prioritised. It took the death of Sarah Everard to bring the issue of women’s safety to the forefront of public debate, and sadly, she is just one in a massive number of women who have been killed by men. Does each debate about women’s safety have to be sparked by a loss of a woman’s life?
Cover painting is Boreas by John William Waterhouse.