Amid crisis of confidence, London police advise women to challenge officers they don’t trust

LONDON — In effort to restore public confidence after one of its officers raped and murdered a young woman, the London Metropolitan Police encouraged people to shout or wave down a bus if they encounter a lone police officer they do not trust.

The measures, which are not unlike the ones police recommend for dealing with any dangerous situation, struck many as missing the point and again putting the onus for safety on women rather than the men who commit the crimes.

“Telling women to run if someone purporting to be a police officer tries to arrest them is not a solution,” Conservative lawmaker Caroline Nokes told Sky News.

Jess Phillips of the opposition Labour Party said simply that “the suggestion that somehow we have to change our behavior, once again, is a bit tiring.”

Britain is a society that prides itself in “policing by consent,” the idea that police work on behalf of the public rather than the state and that maintaining trust in that system is paramount.

But that confidence in the police was rocked after Officer Wayne Couzens, 48, used his police identification to falsely arrest Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old marketing executive, on the pretext that she broke coronavirus regulations in March. He raped and strangled Sarah Everard with his police belt, then burned her body.

On Thursday, Couzens was sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole, a rare judgment usually handed out only to people who commit terrorist attacks or multiple murders.

“I don’t think anyone can pretend that this case hasn’t dealt a devastating blow to people’s confidence in the police,” Policing Minister Kit Malthouse told the BBC on Friday.

“Sadly, we’ve got to a situation where the police have had to issue guidance to people who do have doubts about the bona fide officer . . . But it has to be done in order to restore that trust,” he stated.

Plainclothes police officers are not often deployed on their own. “But if women find themselves in that circumstance,” Malthouse said, “it’s perfectly reasonable for them to make inquiries and seek verification of what the police officer is doing.”

He also said that an investigation was underway to examine whether police could have done more early on to identify Couzens as a threat. Cars registered in his name were connected with two instances of alleged indecent exposure, in Kent in 2015 and at a London McDonald’s three days before Everard’s abduction.

Meanwhile, the police watchdog, the Independent Office for Police Conduct, is investigating the conduct of five police officers who were allegedly part of a WhatsApp group that the Times of London reported included Couzens and shared misogynistic and racist material.

In a lengthy statement published Thursday night, the Metropolitan Police acknowledged that mistakes may have been made in vetting Couzens and vowed to make changes and “do all we can to rebuild that trust.”

As part of their efforts to protect more women and girls, the police will add 650 new officers to patrol areas in London.

The force said that if someone believes they are in danger, they are advised to “seek assistance — 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,” the official emergency number.

Nokes said this was insufficient. She said Police Commissioner Cressida Dick, who has faced calls to resign, “had six months since Sarah Everard’s murder to come out with a plan to help restore trust in the service she leads.”

Phillips, who is Labour’s point person on domestic violence, said she, too, wanted “to hear more from Cressida Dick than, ‘We will work together, we will learn lessons’ — honestly a 5-year-old could come up with it.”

“If I was Sarah Everard that night, I would have got in that car, and almost anybody would have got in that car,” she added in her interview with the BBC.

Simon Holdaway, a professor of criminology at the University of Sheffield, said it would have been helpful if Dick had come forward after the sentencing and focused on men.

“She should have said, ‘This is primarily a problem for men, and we have to make sure that in the Met, our male officers receive training and are monitored and we ensure they don’t harbor the sorts of attitudes that discriminate against women,’ ” Holdaway said. “I think if she’d said that, at the start, I would have been more convinced that we have a proper understanding and a proper set of actions.”

Over the past 11 years, 771 Metropolitan Police officers and staffers have faced sexual misconduct allegations, according to Britain’s i newspaper. The paper, which obtained the data via a Freedom-of-Information request, said 89 percent of those facing allegations were men.

Nazir Afzal, a lawyer who worked as a prosecutor on some of Britain’s biggest sex-offender cases, told The Washington Post that the case has “shocked us to the core.”

He said that the directive from police for the public to challenge officers was the wrong focus.

“We say it’s an issue of women’s safety when it’s an issue of male violence. Afzal stated that women are constantly being asked to modify their behavior. She suggested going out with a partner, telling people about your plans, and not drinking too much. We are asking women for their behavior changes. Rarely do we ask men to change their behaviors.”

Many on social media echoed that sentiment.

Sophie Walker, the former leader of the Women’s Equality Party, tweeted, “Women: ‘Challenge the police’ is a whole new level of Lean In that we don’t need.”

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