When tragedies occur, there is often a distasteful sideshow: the uninvolved can’t resist relating themselves to the events. We’ve all been guilty of this to some degree: thinking “I was going to go there on holiday next year” when an earthquake occurs, feeling the alarming proximity of danger even when it is in reality nothing much to do with us. This is a natural, albeit solipsistic, response. This year, the deaths of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa have led me, and many of my friends, to similar thoughts. Both women were about my age, and both were attacked in south London, in locations I have walked through myself at night: so their horror feels more acute than crimes I read about taking place elsewhere. Even something as meaningless as a different postcode can allow an anxious mind to protect itself, to pretend it could only happen to someone else.
Many women are killed by men, but the details of Everard’s murder were shockingly, cinematically nightmarish. Snatched from a populated street on a mundane walk home, she was chosen at random by a predator who was also a serving policeman. Her death incited not only grief for her stolen life, but also outrage, outrage that broadened to encompass a broad range of women’s experiences. Women expressed, en masse, how frightened they are to go out alone at night, using Everard’s murder to underline why they are correct to be so.
I truly do understand why so many women feel afraid to be out by themselves after dark. But personally, I don’t share that fear. I have always been happy to walk alone at night, and indeed value it deeply as a pleasure. I don’t say this to brag about my bravery, but because I don’t want to live in a world where young girls only hear that to be an adult woman is to be too frightened to go out on your own after dark. And however horrified we might be by what happened to Sarah Everard, the fact is that those fears bear little material relationship to a murder as shocking as hers.
Sabina Nessa was attacked at 8.30pm. We now know of Everard that her murder had little to do with the fact that she was out after dark (9.30pm) and everything to do with the profession of her killer. Following the trial of Wayne Couzens, it has emerged that he had a detailed plan, which began with executing a fake arrest in order to detain his victim. Using his real police ID, he handcuffed her and put her in his car.
You never know which details of a story such as this will make you crack, break through the glaze of appalled interest and truly haunt you. The fact that Couzens bought a salted caramel latte the morning after he raped and murdered Sarah made me cry, for instance. Her family’s agonised, eloquent impact statements will live with me forever now. But most disturbing of all is that Couzens used Covid laws to deceive her. I keep thinking of how fearful and isolating that time already was, how confused and trepidatious we all were, always feeling we were doing the wrong thing. To take advantage not only of his power as a policeman, but of this exceptionally lonely moment, feels unbearable.
We now know how Couzens’ status as a policeman was deployed to end a woman’s life, which makes the efforts to retrospectively disassociate him from the police as an institution all the more offensive. Media outlets have described him as a “former” or “ex” policeman, but he was only dismissed after his crimes were uncovered. He was an active officer at the time of the murder, which is how he should be represented. A former senior detective who worked on the case has said: “Police officers do not view Wayne Couzens as a police officer. They view him as a murderer who happened to be a police officer, rather than the other way around: a police officer who is a murderer.” The logic at work here is a perfect demonstration of how institutions become irredeemably rotten. The logic is: the police are good, therefore the bad man simply is not a policeman.
It is in its way a perfect bit of fantasy, almost inarguable. The position of the police in our society relies on the delusion that they are always benevolent, always acting in pursuit of justice and public well-being. Anything which undermines that lie must be suppressed, denied, or wished out of existence. But many demographics, routinely abused by police, have long known that this is a lie. All but the most zealous apologists must be able to see it too, by now. The totality of power given to officers overrides the humanity of both subject and enforcer: the institution is not fit for purpose. Couzens’ position as a policeman was not incidental to this murder: as with every act of violence committed by the police, his position literally and materially enabled the crime to occur.
The feminist group Sisters Uncut have this week announced they will be offering police intervention training. Now is not the time to tell girls they should stay inside and be afraid. Instead, it is time to spread practical knowledge about how we can protect each other out in the world, including from the police.