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17 March 2021updated 25 Jul 2021 12:04pm

Are UK police forces institutionally misogynist?

After Metropolitan Police officers’ heavy-handed policing of the Clapham Common vigil for Sarah Everard, a “toxic” workplace culture is under scrutiny.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Last July, amid a global wave of Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality, the Metropolitan Police commissioner Cressida Dick claimed her force was not institutionally racist.

It was four days after the British athlete Bianca Williams was stopped by Met officers while driving to her home in west London, handcuffed and separated from her baby son. She called the incident “racial stereotyping and prejudice”.

Yet regardless of the evidence of disproportionate targeting of black people by officers, Dick insisted there was no “collective failing” or “massive systemic problem” with racism in the police.

[See also: Stop, search, repeat: The endless journey of prejudice in the police and justice system]

There appears to be a similar attitude to misogyny in the force. The former Nottinghamshire Police chief Sue Fish – whose force recognised misogyny as a hate crime in 2016 – and the Centre for Women’s Justice lawyer Debaleena Dasgupta have accused police of institutional misogyny.

The scenes at Clapham Common on 13 March, when police forcibly removed women from a vigil for Sarah Everard, showed misogyny is “ingrained in the decision-making”, Fish told the Guardian. The force is under further scrutiny as the man charged with Sarah Everard’s kidnap and killing is a Met police officer. He will be tried in autumn.

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An officer involved in the search operation for Sarah Everard is now under investigation by the Independent Office of Police Conduct for allegedly sending colleagues an internet meme about violence against women (described by the Met as an “inappropriate graphic”).

In January five officers were sacked from the Hampshire Constabulary when caught making racist, homophobic and sexist remarks. The prosecuting barrister described the misogyny thus:

“Women were called or referred to as ‘whores’, ‘sluts’, ‘sweet tits’ or ‘sugar tits’, ‘Dorises’, ‘a fucking Doris’ … A suspect is called a ‘fucking cunt’. And the officers ponder amongst themselves if a person using the Tannoy system is ‘getting any cock’.”

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Seven years ago, three police officers from the same force were sacked for “deeply offensive” sexist and homophobic comments about colleagues.

This pattern recalls the experience of the former officer Kevin Maxwell, who wrote about prejudice in the Greater Manchester Police and Metropolitan Police in his 2020 book Forced Out. Women in the police were referred to as “either bikes or dykes – you rode them, or they rode one another”, he revealed.

During his training, Maxwell recalled two of his male peers complaining about being taught by women. “As far as they were concerned, training officers was a man’s role… ‘Feminine’ traits, like active listening and rapport-building, were considered weaknesses.”

His mainly white male colleagues questioned why there were representative groups for women in the force, and black and gay officers, when there wasn’t a “straight white man’s police association”. “This was the mindset of white, straight male police officers in an overwhelmingly white, straight male organisation,” writes Maxwell.

[See also: The rape gap: why are convictions plummeting as reports rise?]

High-profile discrimination cases against police forces brought by individual offices have long exposed how misogyny can intersect with racism.

Greater Manchester Police settled in 2004 with its then highest-ranking black woman officer, the late Karin Mulligan, following her allegations that racial and sexual discrimination stopping her being promoted. The Met Police constable Senel Ismail received a five-figure pay-out in 2007 after she was falsely accused of having a series of affairs with male recruits, which was also said to have led to inappropriate sexual behaviour from colleagues.

Just last year the Met’s most senior female Asian officer, Nusrit Mehtab, quit the force, complaining of a “toxic workplace” and suing for alleged racist and sexist abuse. She believes “the Metropolitan Police Service only pays lip service to the diversity and inclusion agenda”. Her claims include male colleagues putting a vibrator in her locker, drawing penises on a picture of another Asian superintendent, and overhearing a colleague say, “You’ll never believe it. The Doris has passed. How the hell did that happen?” when she was promoted.

[See also: “It’s your own little prison”: Domestic abuse victims were trapped long before lockdown]

Perhaps, then, it is little wonder so few women who experience sexual violence report it to the police (only around 15 per cent do). Police are looking into claims by a woman allegedly flashed on the way home from the vigil in Clapham that a male officer she told dismissed her, saying, “No, we’ve had enough tonight with the rioters.”

In most cases of rape, there is a drastic failure to prosecute. Police referrals of rape cases have been falling, despite rising numbers of reports, and police have been sending fewer cases of domestic abuse to the Crown Prosecution Service, which has been prosecuting a lower number and winning fewer convictions – again, despite rising reports.

While the Met can boast of improved gender equality, and its first female commissioner, it’s clear there is more to changing culture than representation alone. As Maxwell told me when I interviewed him last year about racism in the police: “We need officers of colour to join the police to think differently, not just look different.”

It is more than two decades since Ian Blair, who was Met commissioner from 2005 to 2008, denounced the force’s bigoted “canteen culture”. Its consequences continue to play out in the capital today.

[See also: “It shames me. I was so institutionalised”: Ex-officer Kevin Maxwell on leaving the police]