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15 December 2021

Rhiannon Cosslett

New police guidelines are easy. Real change to protect women is hard

Why is there an emphasis on orders, vetting and frameworks while calls to recognise misogyny as a hate crime go ignored?

It has been a horrific year for violence against women: at least 133 women in the UK been killed by men in 2021 so far. The murder of Sarah Everard by a serving police officer, as well as the odious behaviour of the two officers who shared photographs of the bodies of Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, has caused trust in the police fall to new lows.

A new framework launched by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) today aims to bring about a “fundamental shift” in the prioritisation of violence against women and girls. The statement talks of fostering a “call-out” culture where forces would communicate strongly that sexism and misogyny would not be tolerated in policing – such a basic standard of behaviour that you wonder how poor the culture is, if this is framed as a proactive strategy.

That’s not to say that some of the measures aren’t welcome. Both the Victims Commissioner for England and Wales, Dame Vera Baird, and the Domestic Violence Commissioner, Nicole Jacobs, have said that they constitute a step forward. The emphasis on listening to women’s voices and hoping to create a culture where women feel able to go to the police is obviously a good thing. But for those of us who still have the images of the young women who attended the vigil for Sarah Everard being manhandled by police seared into our brains, that trust will not be rebuilt easily. Communities where faith in the police has never been strong will need more than words to shift attitudes.

Increased use of domestic violence protection orders and stalking protection orders will help women feel safer, as will better vetting of police officers and monitoring and tagging of previous offenders. But none of this means much without it being underpinned by a thorough understanding of how misogyny operates on an institutional and societal level, including the role played by violent pornography – not to mention the continued terrorist threat posed by online misogyny and incel culture. That rape prosecutions have fallen in the past few years, rendering it a crime in name only, shows how much work needs to be done. Years of underfunding as a result of austerity cannot be undone overnight either.

Sadly, there remains strong political resistance to building an understanding of misogyny as a hate crime on a national level. Some police forces have decided to treat it as such, but calls have largely been met with mealy-mouthed excuses about a lack of resources or how it will open the floodgates to criminalising what some see as minor incidents.

Thankfully, women’s charities including the Centre for Women’s Justice are putting legal pressure on the home secretary to conduct a proper inquiry into institutional misogyny within the police force. There is also encouraging new legislation that will place a legal duty on public bodies requiring them to work together to tackle domestic abuse and sexual offences. There are reasons to be hopeful, certainly. But after this past year I don’t blame women for taking it all with a pinch of salt. Too many women have died for there to be anything more than resigned caution. Trust will be a long time coming.

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[see also: After Sarah Everard: What the case revealed about violence against women]

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