Women have always had to live with the fear of male violence hanging over them, whether it’s walking a street alone at night, sitting in an empty train carriage, or behind your own front door. It’s rare, they say: yet a woman is killed by a man every three days in the UK and many more know the horror of living in an abusive relationship, or of being stalked, or of being constantly sexually objectified.
But it is even more frightening when somebody acting in the name of the state, as part of an institution that is there to protect you, inflicts that terror. This is why the murder of Sarah Everard by a police officer who arrested her, then proceeded to kidnap, rape and kill her, has shaken women’s sense of safety so much. That a Metropolitan police officer could use the powers invested in him by the state to commit such a grotesque crime has fatally undermined the principle of policing by consent, whereby the police rely on the cooperation and trust of citizens to uphold the rule of law.
Other examples of Metropolitan police officers using their powers to abuse, or cover up the abuse of women, abound. There are the undercover officers who deceived women who were political activists into having long-term intimate relationships, and even children, with them, such as Mark Kennedy, who posed as an environmental campaigner. Then there are the policemen who cover up for colleagues when their female partners accuse them of abuse, as detailed by the Centre for Women’s Justice’s website. And there are the officers charged after sharing selfies with the bodies of two murdered black sisters, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, last summer.
There were plenty of warning signs that Met leadership and colleagues of Sarah’s murderer should have picked up on: he was said to have been nicknamed “The Rapist” by colleagues for his predilection for rape-themed porn; there were several allegations of indecent exposure made against him; he was known by colleagues to use prostitutes; he swapped misogynistic abuse with other police officers on WhatsApp. Abusive, controlling men are attracted to jobs like policing precisely because of the power it offers; it is unbelievable that the Met appears incapable of filtering these men out based on the red signals that research has well established are flags for dangerous behaviour towards women.
Sarah Everard’s murder has broken the compact between the public and their police officers in the same way the Met’s gross failings in the wake of Stephen Lawrence’s murder did
Women need to know the Met are addressing their institutional culture of misogyny, and their serious failures around vetting and safeguarding, if they are to feel they can trust the police. Yet the Met’s response has been shambolic. So often, the response to male violence against women is to implore women to keep themselves safer. And so it was with the Met: no comprehensive reforms to vetting were announced, but it did offer some tips to help women negotiate the threat of dangerous police officers, including flagging down a bus, resisting arrest and running away, or calling 999 to verify their identity. If it weren’t so tragic, it would be funny. But the response shows that these cultures will not change without independent scrutiny and intervention.
Boris Johnson has sought to put himself on the side of women by saying he “gets it” – by promising to tackle the shamefully low conviction rates for rape and domestic abuse that have effectively decriminalised violence against women. Yet as he knows, it is the funding cuts to the police, to the prosecution service and to the courts that have left our criminal justice system decimated and victims of crime unable to get justice.
The police rely on public trust to be able to get their job done. Sarah Everard’s murder has broken the compact between the public and their police officers in the same way the Met’s gross failings in the wake of Stephen Lawrence’s murder did. We urgently need a public inquiry into institutional misogyny in Britain’s police forces.
Being leader of the opposition is one of the hardest jobs in politics: outside of election time, no one’s particularly interested in what you’ve got to say; you face criticism from all corners from those who think they could do better than you; and there’s a constant refrain of people asking why you’re not getting more airtime. It’s even harder during a time of national crisis that voters don’t want to see overly politicised.
My expectations of Keir Starmer were pretty low going into his party’s annual conference, but he more than exceeded them. It’s hard to envisage Labour doing enough to turn around its worst election result since 1935 to win the next general election. But I think Starmer firmly put his party back on the long road to electability by distancing himself from his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, one of the least popular opposition leaders in modern history. He delivered a speech that focused on areas like education and crime in terms that have the potential to resonate with voters, and getting through a package of internal party reforms that will allow him and his MPs to focus on their message to the country, rather than worrying about internal party factionalism. His ratings remain tepid, but as the situation facing the country starts to feel grimmer, with rising energy costs, increasing food prices and the £1,000 a year cut in support for low-paid parents hitting family budgets hard, I think Starmer has manoeuvred Labour into a position where more people may start to look on it as an alternative government-in-waiting.
Sonia Sodha is chief leader writer at the Observer and a Guardian/Observer columnist. She also presents Analysis documentaries for Radio 4