Most of the UK has this week been following the harrowing story of the disappearance of Sarah Everard, a young woman walking home through the streets of London, who vanished on the evening of 3 March.
PC Wayne Couzens, a Metropolitan Police Officer, has now been arrested on suspicion of kidnapping and murdering Sarah, and it is believed that her body has been found.
There are much wider issues here for the whole of society to address in terms of how we make our streets safer for women; we cannot allow it to be only the right of men to walk home alone without fear of the dark. The historical injustice of men and women having to live in two separate worlds, where one sex can take the safety of the streets for granted, and the other cannot, must be overturned and it is encouraging to see the complex conversations which we must have about this subject beginning already. Hopefully the spotlight will not be allowed to fade from this ever-present threat to the lives of women, just as issues of racism have remained under close scrutiny and focus since the killing of George Floyd almost 12 months ago.
As a lawyer who specialises in dealing with cases involving Police misconduct however, I feel I have to address in particular the comments of Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick, who stated that she was “shocked and deeply disturbed” to learn that the suspect in Sarah’s murder was a Police officer, in light of subsequent developments which have led the Independent Office of Police Conduct (IOPC) to start an independent investigation.
The IOPC have announced that they are investigating whether Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) officers responded appropriately to a report of an incident of indecent exposure, believed to have involved Wayne Couzens, which occurred on 28 February, three days prior to Sarah’s disappearance.
The Commissioner’s reference to “shock”, coupled with the inference we may take from the IOPC involvement that there are concerns that Couzens may not have been dealt with appropriately for his offending because he was a Police officer rings a tragically familiar note in my experience.
I have recently concluded a claim brought by a young woman suffering from mental health issues, who was subject to abuse at the hands of PC Scott Johnson, then a serving officer in the MPS. Johnson and a colleague were called to the flat of my client (whom I will identify as Helen) after she had taken an overdose of drugs. They escorted her to hospital to receive emergency medical treatment, and whilst she was there, in a hospital bed, Johnson sexually assaulted her by making her touch his penis, and touching her breasts and vagina. Johnson claimed that such contact was ‘consensual’ but there can be no doubt that he must have known that Helen was in no position to give ‘consent’ in the circumstances; he not only knew that she had mental health problems, but that she had only recently taken an overdose of medication and alcohol and was manifestly still under the influence of the same. What he did was a terrible and predatory exploitation of a most vulnerable woman – a hospital patient no less.
Johnson is no longer a Police officer, and was sentenced to 2 years imprisonment for the crime of misconduct in public office; but that charge of misconduct related only to the fact that Johnson subsequently entered into a relationship with my vulnerable client, arranging to meet her on several occasions for sex. He was specifically not charged with any offence of sexual assault despite admitting to the sexual contact between himself and Helen in the hospital room. I personally feel that failing to ensure such a charge was brought against Johnson was a dereliction of duty by the MPS officers investigating the case, and it leaves you with the nasty feeling that Johnson may have been ‘let off the hook’ because of his uniform.
Another victim of a predatory Police officer whom I represent is a young woman who was raped by Cheshire Police Officer Ian Naude when she was only 13 years old. Naude was able to use his position as a Police officer to gain access to my client and to “groom” her before carrying out the rape. He is now serving a long sentence of imprisonment; but my client is going to have to live with what he did to her for the rest of her life. Although the full force of the justice system was eventually brought to bear on Naude to make him pay for his crime, this was not before the investigating officers had ‘tipped’ Naude off about the investigation (allowing him to hide/ destroy evidence). It also came to light that Naude had been allowed to pass Cheshire Police’s “vetting” process when he applied to become a constable, despite the fact that Naude had previously been accused of rape by a woman in Staffordshire. He was admitted to the honourable rank and position of Police Constable, and raped my 13 year old client 7 months later.
All of this is why I would censure Cressida Dick’s comments regarding “shock”, as they speak of a dangerous institutional attitude amongst the Police regarding the calibre of the men who make up their ranks. If the Police are ‘shocked’ to uncover predators amongst their number, is that because they have a default assumption that Police officers are of greater moral fibre than the average person – is that why they fail to take seriously accusations against ‘one of their own’ in so many cases?
In such a situation, can we trust the Police to properly police themselves, or are they too often turning a blind eye to misconduct, whether criminal or otherwise, committed by their colleagues, out of a belief that the ‘greater good’ is served by Police loyalty towards their ‘brothers in arms’. Such an attitude would explain the pro-Police bias displayed by their professional complaints system, which I have blogged about on many previous occasions.
The reality is that being a Police officer endows an individual with considerable power over others, and opportunities to exploit that power. Predators, abusers, bullies and manipulators are naturally drawn towards sources of and opportunities to weld such power over the lives of others. Cressida Dick, and the Policing profession as a whole, needs to lose any default assumption that the men in its ranks have hands any cleaner than the rest of society.