Photo by Dan Kitwood

Black and blue

The feminist fix: Make the Sarah Everard inquiry a statutory investigation of internalised police misogyny

Artillery Row

“Black and blue” is the seventeenth article in Julie Bindel’s online column for The Critic, “The feminist fix”, which explores feminism’s answer to today’s challenges. The sixteenth article, on how sexual harassment will never end in the workplace as long as it’s legal in the marketplace, can be read here.

For decades, feminists in the UK have focused on fixing the problem of a statute book, which historically provided wholly inadequate protection to women and children. Amongst other things, they have successfully lobbied for the criminalisation of rape in marriage, which, before 1992, was perfectly legal.

If conviction rates fall any lower, rape might as well be decriminalised

But what do we do about the shocking, monumental failure of police and prosecutors to enforce our existing laws? If conviction rates for rape fall any lower in the UK, it might as well be decriminalised. If men continue to murder their former and current female partners at a rate of one every three days, is it not obvious that not enough is being done to tackle the most serious cases of domestic violence before they escalate?

This week is the first anniversary of the murder of Sarah Everard. The case was shocking not because it was the murder of a woman. Femicide is endemic throughout all societies to the point where most are not even reported in the press. This murder was notable because the perpetrator was a serving police officer.

It was also notable because he was involved in chat groups with other officers, where the most disgusting misogyny was treated as a matter of course. The case highlighted that the roots of that heinous crime lie not in one police officer, but in wider practices and attitudes within the force.

Four years after the murder of Stephen Lawrence by a racist gang, a public inquiry into the police was ordered by the then Home Secretary. Thanks to the tenacity of the Lawrence family and other anti-racist campaigners, it was finally recognised that the Lawrence murder could not be fully understood outside of the wider context of institutionalised racism within the police force.

The day the inquiry was announced, I happened to be speaking at a conference on domestic violence, where several police officers were also present. I welcomed the announcement, and asked, when could we expect an independent inquiry into institutionalised misogyny within the force? The room erupted, with feminists on the one hand clapping and whooping in agreement, and the (all male) police officers going collectively red in the face and loudly objecting to the accusation that the force has a “woman problem”.

The atypical nature of the murder of Sarah Everard acts as a smokescreen

It isn’t just feminists, but also the families of victims who know: so many of the women that die at the hands of men had previously begged police for protection. We know that the police consistently fail to work effectively towards conviction in cases where men murder women. It is high time we start treating murders committed because of men’s hatred of us, where no conviction is achieved due to the internalised misogyny of police, as seriously as the Stephen Lawrence case.

When Priti Patel announced after the Everard case, that there would be an inquiry, it was probably assumed that those of us campaigning to end male violence were placated. Far from it: we recognise that although such an inquiry would be welcomed by Sarah Everard’s family and loved ones, we knew that, unlike the Lawrence inquiry, it would not go far enough in its investigations.

A case like that of Sarah Everard is shocking and rare — a woman snatched off the street by a serving police officer, who goes on to rape and murder her. It is easy to paint the man who did it as a lone wolf. One very bad apple in a generally wholesome barrel surely does not necessitate a general inquiry? In this way, the atypical nature of the murder of Sarah Everard acts as a smokescreen. But even on the facts of the Everard case alone, any public inquiry should scrutinise the culture of policing in general, not one individual case.

There are countless incidents of violence against women and girls perpetrated by serving police officers. At least sixteen police officers have murdered women in the UK in the last 13 years, and there were 150 incidents of police violence against women and girls reported to the Centre for Women’s Justice since 2019. Treating Everard’s murder as an isolated incident is wrong headed.

There are also many examples of misogyny and sexual harassment towards female officers perpetrated in the workplace. In 2015 I produced a BBC R4 documentary with the laudable Jackie Malton, the inspiration for the Jane Tennison character in the TV drama Prime Suspect. We found, by talking to former and current female officers, that there exists a canteen culture that encourages the worst type of attitudes towards women, which obviously drip feeds into the way that victims of sexual and domestic violence are treated when they report those crimes.

Feminists have ensured the necessary laws are already on our books

Despite lobbying from women’s groups on these issues, however, the government has failed to listen. So has the House of Lords, which rejected, 90 votes to 33, a move to shift the inquiry to a statutory one. Home Secretary Priti Patel has even suggested that inquiries should remain non-statutory to give Sarah Everard’s family closure as soon as possible. This is disingenuous in the extreme. As tragic as the Sarah Everard case is, this inquiry could and should have a positive impact on every single woman in the country. We are all stakeholders when it comes to the way that sexual and domestic violence is policed.

If the Home Secretary really wishes to provide better protection to women and girls, what needs to happen? No new laws are needed; feminists have ensured they are already on our books. Neither is an inquiry solely focussed only on the case of Sarah Everard likely to have any lasting effect. Rather, what is needed is a full scale, Lawrence style inquiry, looking into deeper misogyny and violence within the police service, including levels of violence perpetrated by serving officers. In short, the inquiry needs to join the dots between police attitudes to sexual and domestic violence, and how they police the crimes in the wider community.

It is vital that this inquiry be a statutory one. Any other type of inquiry will allow officers to shy away from telling the truth, and deter whistleblowers, because they would not be entitled to independent and specialist legal advice to protect them. Unless officers are compelled to give the information they may hold, most of them will bow to the pressure against those who might discredit the police service. Now is the time to expose the reality of police culture, and to deal with it robustly. Now is the time for perpetrators within the police service, and those responsible for their conduct, to face the consequences. Most of all, now is the time to protect vulnerable women. If not now, then when?

Julie Bindel’s latest book, Feminism for Women: The Real Route to Liberation (Constable, Robinson), was published on 2 September 2021.

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