It is haunting. We now know, because of details from her murderer’s sentencing hearing, that the abduction which led to Sarah Everard’s death happened in plain sight. She thought she was being arrested by a police officer. Indeed, she was. Wayne Couzens was a serving Metropolitan Police officer when he drove up alongside Sarah and used his police ID to stop her. Witnesses assumed she had done something wrong and did not intervene. It was recorded on CCTV on a well lit street.
In his sentencing remarks, as he handed Couzens a rare whole-life sentence which means he can never be released from prison, Lord Justice Fulford said: "You have very considerably added to the sense of insecurity that many have living in our cities, perhaps particularly women... You have eroded the confidence that the public are entitled to have in the police."
This sentencing does not come as a relief for women. It provides no reassurance. It does nothing to quell the anger or placate the grief felt when the news of Sarah’s disappearance broke in March. If anything, the details of the grotesque abuse of power and betrayal of trust carried out by Couzens have only made things worse.
Sarah Everard did everything right and it didn’t save her. From a young age, women are taught to look for a policeman if something goes wrong. If you lose your mum when you’re out shopping or at the park, find a policeman. They can be trusted.
Now, women are asking: If the police don’t keep people safe, who does? It’s a vital question and, of course, one that Black people – who are more likely than white people to be stopped and searched – have long asked. The police do not make everyone feel safe and, as the government’s policing minister Kit Malthouse has noted, they are going to have to work hard to rebuild public confidence.
Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick has promised that lessons will be learned from Sarah Everard’s murder but has not outlined any measures to ensure that this happens.
Scotland Yard’s response so far? They have said that people stopped by a lone plainclothes officer should challenge their legitimacy, call 999 and could try "waving a bus down" to escape a person they believe is pretending to be the police.
Headphones in, no music on. Staying just sober enough. No skirts. Calling someone so you aren’t 'alone'. Walking the long way because it’s better lit. Wondering if the 'keys between fingers thing' really works. Having fun but keeping one eye, always, on your drink.
The list of things women are supposed to do to keep themselves out of danger is already long.
Now women are being told to add making sure police officers are who they say they are to that list. Exhausting.
One of the founding principles of the Metropolitan Police was the notion of "policing by consent". This is the idea that the legitimacy of the police in the eyes of the public is based on support which is underpinned by transparency about their powers and integrity in the way they exercise them.
It is true that Couzens undermined this fundamental principle. That’s why the Metropolitan Police are going to great lengths to distance themselves from their former employee (Couzens was sacked in July after pleading guilty). This is an attempt to spin what is known as a "bad apple" narrative: 99.9% of police officers are good, he was the exception and not the rule.
But he is not the only one. Two Met Police officers were recently charged with misconduct after they took selfies at the scene of a double murder in 2020. The victims were 27-year-old Nicole Smallman and 46-year-old Bibaa Henry. It doesn’t stop there. After the details of Sarah’s death emerged, the police were widely accused of "heavy handed" policing at a peaceful candlelit vigil held in central London to honour her memory. Women were photographed being thrown to the floor and handcuffed by officers as they mourned. We now also know that colleagues of Couzens jokingly referred to him as "the rapist" because he allegedly had "a reputation in terms of drug abuse, extreme pornography and other offences of this kind."
Questions are now being asked about how the Met failed to spot the fact that they had a killer in their ranks. And the answers speak to a culture problem. On BBC Radio 4’s World at One, former Metropolitan Police Chief Parm Sandhu said that female officers don’t always report suspicious behaviour of male colleagues because they "close ranks".
This was not, and never will be, about ‘bad apples’. It’s about a system that is rotten to the core.
Estelle du Boulay, Director at Rights of Women
That’s not all. More recently, Freedom of Information requests submitted by The i Paper have revealed that more than 750 Metropolitan Police Service officers and staff have faced sexual misconduct allegations in the past 11 years, with just 83 of them sacked. A total of 771 officers and staff – 88% of whom were serving officers – from the service have faced allegations of sexual misconduct since 2010. Over the same period, 163 Met officers were arrested for sexual offences, with 38 of them convicted after appearing in court. And in 2020 the journalist Alexandra Heal revealed that police forces across the country are failing women who report that they are in domestic abuse situations in which the perpetrator is a police officer.
Rights of Women is a legal charity that was founded in 1975. Led by women lawyers, it provides free legal advice to women in England and Wales and is dedicated to increasing women’s understanding of the law and their ability to seek justice.
Estelle du Boulay is the director at Rights of Women. "This was not, and never will be, about ‘bad apples’," she told Refinery29. "It’s about a system that is rotten to the core."
"Sarah Everard should be alive today, instead we are witnessing the sentencing of a serving police officer for her murder. We all want justice for Sarah and safety for women and girls. We demand better than a system that enabled a serving police officer to take her life," she continued.
"We will not accept empty promises that ‘lessons will be learnt’ – these promises have been broken too many times before. The pattern of failings that led to Sarah’s murder result from structural and systemic inequalities that are entrenched in the police as an institution alongside the lack of effective independent accountability systems."
"We must hold the police to account for their failure to protect us, and challenge their culture of misogyny, abuse of power and impunity, to get justice for Sarah and safety for women and girls."
So what now? Locking Sarah Everard’s killer up for life won’t restore people’s faith in the police and it certainly won’t solve the problem of male violence. These problems exist in our police forces because the police are human, they reflect our society. And our society is one in which male violence is endemic.
Sarah's story, like that of every woman behind those statistics, is one of entrenched structural misogyny, sexism and patriarchal violence. It exposes an uncomfortable truth: the institutions that supposedly protect women are, sometimes, perpetrating the very violence they’re supposed to prevent.
This realisation could bring about positive change but it will require serious commitment from the government. They reopened the Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) consultation in the wake of Sarah Everard's murder and subsequently released a VAWG strategy in July which promised better support services for minority communities, as well as a public health campaign that will focus on perpetrator behaviour.
This week’s news shows how urgent that is. Another woman’s name has also made headlines because of gender-based violence. As Couzens was sentenced, a 38-year-old man accused of killing 28-year-old Sabina Nessa appeared in court charged with her "predatory" murder. She was walking to a local bar when she was attacked.
Something is wrong, very wrong. Sarah just wanted to walk home. Sabina just wanted to meet a friend. But when we cannot have confidence in the people who are supposed to make us feel safe, someone has to be held accountable and things have to change.