If you wanted a single image to sum up why the Metropolitan Police has been put under the special measure known as “engage”, you couldn’t do much better than the one in which two uniformed men are physically pinning a woman in her twenties to the ground simply for attending a vigil for a woman murdered by a serving police officer.
Patsy Stevenson was just one of hundreds of women attending the vigil for Sarah Everard in March 2021. It was held on Clapham Common, very near to where the Met officer Wayne Couzens “arrested” Everard for breaching Covid regulations, before driving her to Kent, raping and strangling her. Couzens, it later emerged, had been nicknamed “the rapist” by his colleagues because of his behaviour around women – and yet had remained in his job.
Women who attended the vigil reported seeing vans of officers waiting on back streets to break it up. The police authorities claimed that it was in breach of Covid regulations, while officers on the ground said that the mood of the crowd had shifted to an “anti-police protest”, as if these things could in any way justify the force’s behaviour that day. Inherent in that latter justification is the assumption that such a protest is illegitimate, rather than being an entirely rational response to the events that led up to the vigil.
The then-police commissioner of the Met, Cressida Dick, steadfastly defended the force’s actions, despite the widely available footage of male officers physically assaulting women. (If that weren’t metaphor enough, they trampled the flowers left in Everard’s memory too.) In March, the High Court ruled that the Met’s actions were unlawful; the force appealed. Earlier this month, the Met said it would be prosecuting six people for breaching Covid rules at the vigil. It seems institutionally incapable of grasping that its actions were wrong.
This is just one story. Perhaps it hits harder because we have photographic and video evidence; perhaps it’s because those on the wrong end of the baton were largely white and middle class. But the letter from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, setting out the reasons the Met was being placed into special measures, includes many equally horrifying scandals. They include the story of a Hackney teenager strip-searched by officers, whose age and vulnerability can be determined by her being referred to as “Child Q”; the officers at Charing Cross police station, who shared jokes “about hitting and raping women, as well as the deaths of black babies and the Holocaust”; the use of stop and search against the likes of athlete Bianca Williams and Labour frontbencher Dawn Butler MP, ostensibly for being black and in a nice car. Williams was stopped while with her baby son.
This contempt for the people they serve would be unforgivable even if the Metropolitan Police was successfully policing London, but it is not doing that either. The letter covers how it has failed to record an estimated 69,000 crimes every year, and has not told victims when investigations into their crimes had been dropped. The theme that runs through all these stories is that the police view the people of London as, at best, a nuisance; at worst, as the enemy. And when its officers abuse their power, the response of its leadership has been to defend them at all costs and to attack those who protest. It’s not good enough.
It’s no surprise that the Metropolitan Police has been placed in special measures. The real question is why it took so long.
[See also: The Metropolitan Police protects the powerful]