Content warning: this article contains mentions of femicide, rape, and police misogyny that readers may find distressing.
By Jessica Sutton.
It has now been nearly a month since Sarah Everard was killed and her body abandoned in a builder’s bag on Clapham Common. A particularly upsetting ingredient of this crime is that the man arrested and charged with Sarah’s murder is a serving police officer. The alleged murderer works in the Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection Unit, and was working the day that Sarah was killed. He will continue to be fully paid until the trial is resolved. Discussions about misogyny in Police will follow his passage through the courts, while others will term him simply a “bad apple” in a benevolent institution.
A Bad Apple?
In my travels through the comment sections of articles about Sarah, I have seen that many people are shocked that the alleged murderer is a police officer. Others hasten to describe him as one violent man in a sea of good officers. If you are used to thinking about the police as a source of reassurance and security, then Sarah’s murder is a discomfiting surprise. However, to many women, people of colour, and members of the LGBT+ community, the identity of the accused is no surprise at all.
First, and most obviously, Police is riddled with misogyny because women and minorities are still rarely involved in the institution, particularly in the higher ranks. Women were originally barred from police work, due to the stereotypes that women were physically weak, would prioritise marriage and family, and would disrupt the dynamics of the force. The first female officer in New Zealand took up her role in 1941. Women made up only 15% of superintendents and 13.3% of inspectors in 2019.
Shannon M Chan’s thesis, Negotiating Gender and Police Culture, shows that women working in Police continue to experience verbal sexual harassment and a “wall of silence” around the misconduct of male colleagues. The “cult of masculinity” means women must fit in or be victimised for being “sensitive”. Reporting sexual assault or harassment at the hands of a colleague is looked upon as tearing down the team, and can lead to female police officers being ostracised, Chan suggests. This culture essentially perpetuates a “boys will be boys” view of police action, meaning female employees are diverted away from formal complaints and encouraged to either ignore it, or assimilate into the toxic culture.
Secondly, police work has been found to be both isolating and polarising, leading officers to reinforce each other’s prejudices. This creates a collective culture which can present women as either sexual objects to deal with the stress of the job, or lying and manipulative people who are out to tear down good police officers. In New Zealand this was most famously demonstrated by the Louise Nicholas Commission of Inquiry. The Inquiry uncovered the systemic rot of misogyny in Police, after Ms Nicholas attempted to get accountability from the police officers that raped her. This misogynist culture means that many police officers globally exhibit a worryingly high predilection for misogyny and violence outside of their work. An American study indicates that domestic violence is between two and four times more likely in families including a male police officer than families without. Women’s Refuge states that only 25% of police officers found by internal police investigators to be domestic abusers are charged.
Other shocking examples of Police disregard for women can be found in the last year alone. A police constable associated with the search for Sarah shared a foul meme on social media depicting a “guide” to abducting and murdering a woman. The meme is apparently a parody of the Highway Code, and begins with a picture of a police officer saying “stop, single girl!” The meme was sent while the officer in question was at the location where Sarah’s body was discovered. This disregard for human life is directed even more viciously at women of colour. When sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman were stabbed to death last year, two police officers took selfies with their dead bodies. After hearing about the dehumanising photographs, their mother said: “…those police officers felt so safe, so untouchable, that they felt they could take photographs of dead black girls and send them on. It speaks volumes of the methods that runs through the Metropolitan Police…they were nothing to them.”
The implication seems to be clear: dead women are a joke to the police.
Violence at the Vigil
The national grief felt in the aftermath of Sarah’s death led London group “Reclaim these Streets” to organise a candle-lit vigil in Sarah’s honour. Originally, the organisers were led to believe that local Police were not going to oppose the vigil. After all, countless anti-lockdown protests had gone ahead in the preceding months, with Police largely taking an educative approach to protesters (until recently). Police changed their position several days before the vigil, and stated that it would be treated as illegal if it went ahead, purportedly due to coronavirus restrictions. The organisers challenged this in court and, while the court did not rule in their favour, it did suggest that Police could and should work with the organisers so that the event could take place safely. Instead, Police refused to engage.
Despite the vigil being officially cancelled, intense emotion for Sarah meant people still assembled in droves. Scenes of the vigil were eerily similar to the peaceful remembrance of other femicide victims such as Eurydice Dixon: an ocean of flowers, women standing in solidarity, hundreds of candles flickering. But on this occasion, people were interrupted in their mourning. Police officers crashed into the crowd of peaceful mourners, pushing some to the ground, dragging others away, and fining participants for breaching coronavirus regulations. Video footage shows two officers wrestling a woman to the ground to put her in handcuffs. Boris Johnson and other influential individuals were “shocked” by the scenes of violence.
Just as in the Black Lives Matter protests, this attack by the police has a tragic irony. When people of colour protest against Police brutality, Police respond by committing more violence against people of colour. When women peacefully remember a sister allegedly killed by a violent Police officer, Police respond by committing more violence against women.
Not only that, but a man infiltrated the vigil in order to expose himself to the female mourners, and Police have thus far failed to apprehend him. The police have demonstrated utter disregard both for Sarah’s life and memory, and the very real and painful emotions women are feeling at the moment. No one is disputing the importance of coronavirus regulations. But preventing people from protesting through violence, robs them of an essential human right. People must be allowed to safely protest, mourn, and find comfort in each other. Reclaim these Streets tried to create a safe, socially distanced place for mourners and were shunned by the police. If the vigil had still been unsafe and had to be dispersed, officers should have shown some much-needed sensitivity.
The organisers have adapted to the danger posed by the local police force and have hosted online events on the Reclaim These Streets YouTube Channel. People are also encouraged to take the vigil to their doorsteps, holding a candle for Sarah at 9.30pm on Saturday, the time Sarah is believed to have been abducted by her killer. Despite the horrific response of the police, women in the UK will not let this go. As Chloe Whyte, organiser of a vigil in Edinburgh, said: “This is only getting bigger and bigger, regardless of what the police or the law have to say about our vigils – women will not be silenced.”
Increased Police Presence
In response to Sarah’s murder, the Boris Johnson administration has promised £25m for increased CCTV coverage and lighting, and the roll-out of plain-clothes police officers stationed in pubs and clubs. These changes are supposedly to make women feel more secure.
At the same time, Britain is reacting to a draft law entitled the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. The Bill proposes to give the police sweeping new powers, including, the power to control protests. Demonstrations against the Bill have since turned violent, resulting in injuries to both officers and protestors.
Some have attempted to frame this Bill, and the conservative government’s promises, as a win for women. Increased police presence must mean that women will be safer, right? To think that, they must not have been listening to women’s concerns in the wake of Sarah’s murder. We need to come to terms with the fact that the police are a significant part of the problem facing women. Women do not feel safer when police officers have more power. It is a luxury to view the police as protectors. It is a luxury that a lot of people do not have, including people of colour and many women. The institution of police is a source of inter-generational trauma. We don’t want more policing. We want support for women’s refuges. We want abusive men to be rehabilitated. We want gender equality education in schools. And most of all, we want those in positions of power to treat the lives of women with the respect they deserve.