Metropolitan Police Metropolitan Police. Photo: Clara / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

As the third anniversary of the rape and murder of Sarah Everard approaches, Steph Pike looks at what has changed

Three years ago a young woman called Sarah Everard went missing from the streets of London. Three years ago a man was arrested and charged with kidnapping, raping and murdering her. He lied continually about where Sarah was and what he had done to her. This man was a serving Met Police Officer. He used his warrant card and handcuffs to falsely arrest her in order to get her into his car.

This brutal murder sent shockwaves through the country and brought to boiling point the anger of women sickened by decades of male violence and the complicity of the authorities.

Three years ago a vigil was held for Sarah on Clapham Common. I was there with thousands of other women, so angry and heart-broken that we defied a government and police ban and gathered in the faliing light to remember and to stand in solidarity with Sarah and all the other hundreds of thousands of women who have suffered at the hands of male violence. 

The mood was emotional but calm until the police decided to deal with a peaceful vigil by forcibly breaking it up, throwing women to the floor and handcuffing them. This proved to be just a taste of the way the police would respond to the misogyny in their ranks.

The wave of emotion and anger that was unleashed 3 years ago was not just about the Sarah Everard; it was also about the police’s appalling treatment of Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, about the thousands of women raped each year without receiving any justice, about the shockingly high levels of domestic violence, about the 100+ women murdered each year by men whose names are read out in parliament by MP Jess Philips, about the authorities’ seeming inability and unwillingness to seriously address this war against women. As Jess Philips said this year as she read out the names of the 98 women murdered by men in the last 12 months, “I am weary. I am tired of fighting for systemic change and being given scraps.” The list of names she read out was, she said, not only a testament to the women’s lives but a testament to our collective failure.

The reason the killing of Sarah Everard became a watershed moment was because it exposed the systemic misogyny not only at the heart of the Met but at the heart of all police forces across the country. It exposed the fact that not only are the police failing to protect women and deliver justice for women, but much worse than that, the police are actually perpetrators of male violence against women using their power and status to assault, abuse, rape and murder women. And even more shocking is the extent to which the system has been condoning this criminal behavior and protecting police offenders; Wayne Couzens was reported for indecent exposure 3 days before he murdered Sarah Everard. He was a serial sexual offender with at least 8 previous offences that were known to the police. And yet he not only got a job with the police but was promoted to a role where he carried a gun. The fact that he could commit repeated sexual offences that were reported to the authorities yet remain immune to any consequences, is likely to have been a contributing factor in the escalation of his offences. 

The murder of Sarah Everard opened the floodgates to a wave of evidence from women of the extent of the toxic culture and abusive behaviour by the police; evidence that proved that this was not one bad apple, as Cressida Dick claimed, but is a systemic problem. At the time, the government and police leaders made horrified noises and promised that lessons would be learned and changes would be made. Last year, the Casey review into standards at the Met concluded that the Met is institutionally racist, sexist and homophobic with a deeply toxic culture. The commissioner of the Met Mark Rowley, brought in to replace Cressida Dick and clean up the Met, refused to accept this finding. 

The findings of the Angiolini report, the official enquiry into Wayne Couzens,  makes for devastating reading. Not only because the police failures were worse than previously thought – Couzens was a serial sex offender embedded in a unit of misogynistic and racist officers, and should never have been employed as a police officer, but also because its conclusion is that no lessons have been learnt and nothing fundamentally has changed. David Carrick was recently jailed for over 80 sexual offences including 48 rapes committed over 17 years while he was a serving Met Police Officer, despite repeated complaints. He was allowed to remain a serving police officer in July 2021 – 4 months after the arrest of Wayne Couzens – following a complaint of rape against him, and was allowed to go back to full duties when the complaint wasn’t pursued. In her report, Angiolini demands an overhaul of police vetting procedures and makes 16 recommendations, recommendations that she says that addressed failings that the police had already been told to rectify in previous official reports but had failed to do. Chillingly, she concludes that so little has changed and the failings of the police are so serious that another Wayne Couzens could be hiding in plain sight.

In the light of this damning report Mark Rowley’s deluded response that the Met has made huge strides in the past three years is not just mind-boggling but frightening. The failure to address the institutional misogyny, racism and homophobia exposed by both the evidence of victims and several official reports is not just a failure by the police. It is also a failure of this government who lack the political will to force the fundamental changes that are needed. We should be angry, but sadly we shouldn’t be surprised. The police and the government have form. The Macpherson report following the murder of Stephen Lawrence was supposed to be a watershed moment for the police in terms of racism. Twenty-five years later little has changed and the Met is still institutionally racist. 

What this tells us is that neither the police nor the government have the ability or the will to make the changes required and women will keep paying the price, often with their lives. The police are unreformable; they cannot be trusted and they should not be funded. The police are just the tip of the iceberg. Misogyny is endemic in every institution and in society itself. We need a vibrant women’s movement. And system change.

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Steph Pike

Steph Pike a is a revolutionary socialist, feminist and People's Assembly activist. She is also a  published poet. Her poetry collection 'Petroleuse' is published by Flapjack Press.