Earlier this month, after being arrested and charged in March, Wayne Couzens, a serving police officer with London Metropolitan Police pleaded guilty for the murder of Sarah Everard, a case which took the nation and social media by storm. Everard’s disappearance at the start of March 2021 caused an outpouring of grief at the state of gender-based violence facing feminine presenting people and the very real every-day dangers they face. Couzens' guilty plea has thus been met with a sense of relief, with many feeling hopeful that justice would be served. But what is justice in this case?
Shortly after Couzens’ plea was released, it was reported that female colleagues in the Civil Nuclear Constabulary had nicknamed him ‘The Rapist’ due to the fact he routinely made them feel uncomfortable. Casualised nicknames like these are symptomatic of a culture that allows gender-based harassment and sexual microaggressions to flourish into something far more sinister, as seen explicitly in this case. As a Watchdog investigates reports of his alleged indecent exposure only three days prior to Everard’s kidnap, it seems that the policing and justice system is not fit for purpose to tackle gender-based violence, given that it has created the very foundation on which it can flourish.
Couzens’ history of alleged sexual violence includes incidents of harassment and indecent exposure; the latter of which was allegedly failed to be investigated. The consistent failures of the police force when it comes to dealing with reports of this nature is down to the fact that a criminal response is not always the best approach and ends up damaging survivors far more than it helps. The low rate of prosecutions for rape cases, even without the large court backlog caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, is nothing short of shameful, and continues to highlight how survivors and those at risk of gender-based violence cannot put their full trust in the system that is supposed to protect those very people.
"Cracking down on protests which have every right to exist in a democratic society [...] does nothing to protect those already vulnerable to violence"
Sarah Everard’s murder has become a catalyst for driving a change around the narrative that survivors have a moral and social responsibility to report incidents of sexual violence and that their voices will not yet be drowned out by the patriarchal noise surrounding policing institutions. Activist group, Reclaim These Streets, attempted to hold a vigil of mourning in the weeks after Everard’s death, but was cancelled due to policing disagreements. Those at Sisters Uncut used the opportunity to highlight the full force of police brutality facing groups vulnerable to gender based violence, especially those disproportionately at risk of police violence alongside this. The brunt force used by the police in the wake of these demonstrations hints at a more sinister development with the ‘Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill’ which as of earlier this month, passed its reading stages in the House of Commons by 365 votes to 265. The Bill gives the police force even more powers when dealing with protests and demonstrations and seeks to criminalise any disturbances that even involve a lone person.
Cracking down on protests which have every right to exist in a democratic society, especially one which seemingly espouses the ‘freedom of speech’ rhetoric frequently, does nothing to protect those already vulnerable to violence and who are likely to be marginalised by the police force anyway. The additional co-opting of this into the discourse surrounding safety and gender based violence prevention included measures such as undercover police officers in nightclubs, which vast numbers of people stated would not deal with the culture of sexual violence we live in, especially given how sexual assault is more likely to occur from an intimate partner than a stranger in a nightclub. Measures like these cause questions to arise regarding the legitimacy of the role of the criminal justice system in these environments, and whether they are using emotionally charged experiences as a means of gathering more surveillance for the criminalisation of those already at risk, namely people of colour and working-class individuals.
If the police force and those involved in the criminal justice system really sought to help end the endemic nature of sexual and gender-based violence, they would best follow a public health approach that would allow for a more comprehensive procedure that puts those at risk at the centre of all measures. Gender based violence does not exist in a vacuum, and the very violent nature of policing is one which is not built to protect survivors, but instead criminalise them and with the new powers that the PCSC Bill would bring, they will be left voiceless again.
Maisie Allen is a final year Liberal Arts undergraduate student, specialising in English Literature and Politics, at King's College London, where she also serves as President of their Women and Politics Society. She has served on Plan International UK's Youth Advisory Panel since January 2019 and has a keen interest in the intersectional nature of feminism and its role in public policy and legislation. She is also a Higher Education Ambassador for Our Streets Now and is passionate about making university campuses a place free from all forms of gender-based violence.
Disclaimer: All views expressed in this piece belong solely to the author and do not reflect the views of Demographica as a company.