Priti Patel Bishops Stortford police visit. Photo: Pippa Fowles/No 10 Downing Street/cropped from original/licensed under CC2.0, linked at the bottom of article Priti Patel Bishops Stortford police visit. Photo: Pippa Fowles/No 10 Downing Street/cropped from original/licensed under CC2.0, linked at the bottom of article

Sarah Everard’s murder by a serving police officer, police attack on a vigil for Everard, police selfies beside murdered sisters, undercover police having sex with female activists, rape and domestic violence ‘jokes’ at Charing Cross police station, humiliating strip searches…it can’t go on, argues Kate Connelly

After a multitude of harrowing headlines about police attitudes towards women came the news last week that Yvonne Farrell, a Rastafarian woman in her 50s, had received an apology and compensation from the police who left her naked in a cell for three hours in 2018. Farrell was so distressed by what happened to her, she has emigrated from Britain as a result. 

Hertfordshire police, whose professional standards department initially rejected Farrell’s complaint before it was taken up by a solicitor, now say they ‘didn’t get everything right on this occasion’.  

It is important that this does not get dismissed as some kind of aberrational misstep by the police. 

The details of Farrell’s treatment have disturbing parallels with other recent cases which suggest a wider culture of misogyny, racism and right-wing prejudices in the police. Strip searching, it seems, is being used to humiliate women who challenge the police. 

After Sarah Everard’s brutal murder by a serving Met police officer in 2021, we were told that more undercover officers would be deployed and that women should stand up to the police. Recent events show neither of these are going to make women safer.  

Strip search as punishment 

Yvonne Farrell was arrested after sitting on her partner’s car to try and stop it being removed by a tow-away truck. Hertfordshire police now accept she should not have been arrested for this. 

When Farrell refused to give the police her name, they ordered her to remove all her clothes and gave her a ‘crop top and hot pants’. 

Farrell, whose culture demands women dress modestly, explained these clothes were inappropriate and requested something longer to cover herself with. She was then left naked for three hours in the police cell.  

The police argued that because they did not know who Farrell was, they removed her clothes to prevent her harming herself.  

However, while it is standard practice for police to remove items that someone in custody might use to harm themselves (e.g. a belt) and to search them for dangerous items, it is not usual to remove all their clothes. Why this was regarded as a ‘safety’ measure in the event of now knowing someone’s name is not clear. Nor does there appear to be any justification on grounds of safety not to provide dignified clothing on request.  

Farrell is clear that her appalling treatment was not about safety: ‘they wanted to humiliate me – they did humiliate me’.  

It sounds similar to the treatment of Koshka Duff who refused to give her name to police after she was arrested and taken to Stoke Newington police station in 2013. There she was strip searched by officers who she said touched her inappropriately and made derogatory remarks about her underwear. Last month, the Met police apologised for the language they used.  

Duff felt that ‘[t]he purpose of the strip search I think was to punish me’. 

Like Farrell, Duff was not arrested for any violent behaviour. Both incidents suggest disturbing police attitudes on race: Farrell is a black woman and Duff was arrested after trying to hand a ‘know your rights’ card to a black fifteen-year-old that she feared was being racially profiled in a stop and search.  

The police involved in Duff’s arrest appeared to particularly resent being challenged on racism; she says she heard them in the police van describe her as a ‘bleeding heart lefty’ and ‘some sort of socialist’

Other non-violent women who found themselves subject to police violence were those who attended a vigil for Sarah Everard on Clapham Common in 2021 after she was abducted, raped and murdered by a serving police officer.  

Patsy Stevenson, who was pinned to the ground and handcuffed by police at the vigil, has told the media that after this she was concerned to find around 50 police and security guards interacting with her online dating profile. She feels this is connected to the stand she took: “It is almost like an intimidation thing, saying, ‘Look we can see you’, and that, to me, is terrifying.”

Right-wing, racist and sexist prejudice 

The picture of right-wing, racist and sexist prejudices in the police that these incidents suggest was certainly a feature of another recent exposé of police behaviour.  

A 2018 inquiry into nine linked investigations into the Met police found disturbing messages shared between officers in which they ‘joked’ about rape and boasted about domestic violence. Other offensive messages were found about the Black Lives Matter movement, gay people, disabled people, Auschwitz, the death of black babies; texts were sent about ‘Somalian rats’ and ‘lefties’ were derided.  

This is not workplace ‘banter’. This is the language of the far-right. Where is the investigation into whether there are links between these officers and far-right groups? 

As Lindsey German has pointed out, another disturbing aspect of this is that police from Charing Cross will be involved in policing demonstrations outside Parliament and Downing Street. 

The investigation was prompted by an allegation of police having sex with a vulnerable woman in a London police station. That was not proven, but allegations that police at Charing Cross are routinely having sex in the station was reported only a few days ago.  

One police officer suspected of taking a woman to the station for sex was nicknamed ‘mcrapey raperson’ by his colleagues. That is chillingly reminiscent of the fact Sarah Everard’s murderer was known as ‘the rapist’ by his police colleagues

Systemic misogyny 

These nicknames point to a normalisation of misogyny within sections of the Met police. They are not isolated examples. 

Last year, two police officers were sentenced to prison after they were found to have shared ‘selfies’ with the bodies of murdered sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman. They were described by the officers as ‘dead birds’. 

The ongoing exposure of the behaviour of undercover officers who had relationships and sex with women activists under false pretences further suggests a widespread contempt for women within the institution. 

A frightening picture is emerging which should cause us to question whether Sarah Everard’s murderer was an aberration, or whether his actions were enabled by a deadly culture of misogyny. 

Enough is enough 

After the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police in Minneapolis in 2020 the protest movement that followed questioned the role of the police in society. 

Something similar needs to happen in Britain. The grotesque attitudes held by some in the Met police sit alongside the police’s failure to investigate at the time all the parties that were being held in government offices in one of the most heavily policed areas in the country. 

And now that government is resisting calls for the Met police Commissioner Cressida Dick to be removed from her post.  

This is self-protection by the establishment that is putting us in danger. We should resist being fobbed off with talk of ‘bad apples’ or calls for more undercover police or calls for women to change their behaviour. 

The police do not need more power, the targets of their discrimination do. We should demand change, starting with the removal of Cressida Dick.

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Katherine Connelly

Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.