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21 December 2021

M is for Metropolitan Police: The murder of Sarah Everard shone a light on a troubling culture in the force

An annus horribilis for London’s police.

By Anoosh Chakelian

In a long and grim list of horrors for the UK’s biggest police force this year, the murder of 33-year-old Sarah Everard by a then-serving Metropolitan Police officer was the bleakest. In March, Wayne Couzens, who had worked on patrols to enforce lockdown rules earlier this year, showed his warrant card and pretended to arrest her for breaching Covid guidelines while Everard was walking home in south London – handcuffing her and abducting her in his car. At his sentencing, to life imprisonment, her horrific ordeal was summarised as: “Deception, kidnap, rape, strangulation, fire.”

It turned out Couzens had been nicknamed “the rapist” in a former posting at the Civil Nuclear Constabulary, was reported driving around naked from the waist down, and faced at least two allegations of indecent exposure that had not been properly investigated – in one case, a woman claimed officers laughed at her when she reported him for flashing.

Such troubling oversights turned the spotlight on to accusations of a misogynistic “canteen culture” in the Met.

The decision for officers to physically restrain women breaking pandemic restrictions to gather for a vigil in Sarah Everard’s memory was roundly condemned. One officer who had been part of the search for her is facing a misconduct meeting for sharing an “inappropriate graphic depicting violence against women” with colleagues on WhatsApp, which the police watchdog says was intended to refer to her kidnap and murder. There is also an investigation into five officers for allegedly sending grossly offensive messages in a WhatsApp chat with Couzens.

Trust in the Met fell even further when its official advice to women afraid of being stopped by a single police officer was to consider “shouting out to a passerby, running into a house, knocking on a door, waving a bus down or, if you are in the position to do so, calling 999”.

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Also in 2021, two Metropolitan Police officers who took and shared photos of the bodies of two sisters, Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry – who had been stabbed to death in a London park last June – were jailed for two years and nine months. The women’s mother, who felt racism was a factor in the Met’s bungling of the search for her daughters, said: “There is more work to be done. The most important thing [is], because of the sentencing, we are part of the change that’s going to come in the culture of the police force.”

In December, an inquest ruled that failings by the Met had contributed to the deaths of three of serial killer Stephen Port’s victims – all in their early twenties and killed with overdoses of GHB. Neil Hudgell, the lawyer representing the victims, stated: “Our firmly held belief is that the Metropolitan Police’s actions were, in part, driven by homophobia.”

Following the Everard case, the Met is reviewing its professional standards and internal culture, while its commissioner Cressida Dick remains in post – despite other major controversies, including the rush of fans into Wembley during the Euro 2020 final and accusations of “institutional corruption” in the 1987 unsolved murder of private investigator Daniel Morgan.

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