Vigil at Clapham Common in memory of Sarah Everard on March 13, 2021. Picture Credit: Guy Smallman/Getty Images

Never take it lying down

The feminist fix: we need a statutory inquiry into police misogyny and misconduct

Artillery Row

“Never take it lying down” is the fourteenth article in Julie Bindel’s online column for The Critic, “The feminist fix”, which explores feminism’s answer to today’s challenges. The thirteenth article, on challenging rape culture and putting more rapists behind bars, can be read here.

There are moves afoot to investigate the serving police officer, Wayne Couzens, who murdered Sarah Everard in March 2021. He was involved in chat groups with other officers, where horribly misogynist “banter” was shared. But investigating the failure to detect the danger posed by Couzens is the very definition of a red herring. If feminists were cynical, we might even think that it was designed to draw attention away from what is really going on “at the station.”

I have seen first-hand the impact that feminists can have on the policing of crimes related to violence against women. My first foray into this world was in 1983. A man called Keith Ward had killed his partner, Julie Stead. She had complained many times to the police about his violence, but they failed to act. At trial, Ward pleaded the partial defence of provocation and was sentenced to three years in prison. 

Violent men seek out positions where they have power over women

In 1990 Ward lined up his next victim, Valerie Middleton, whom he soon began to abuse. While on weekend release from a two-year sentence for a previous attack on Middleton, he killed her. This time he was convicted of murder. I will never forget one senior police officer addressing us in a meeting about the case: “these women give as good as they get”.

I joined a group of feminists, which formed to protest the police response to this case, but also more widely, to domestic violence in West Yorkshire. None of us were surprised when we heard that the particular officer impugning domestic violence victims was a sexual predator, and someone who knocked his girlfriend around in public. 

But then, feminists always knew that those who had the attitude that women were “asking for it,” whether it be domestic abuse or sexual assault, were likely to be carrying out such crimes themselves, and almost certainly getting away with it. It was not a huge surprise to learn, then, that some police officers had actually gone into the job in order to exert additional control over women.

The conviction rate for all forms of violence against women is pathetically low. Small wonder when the very officers charged with policing such crimes are apologists for it. In my view, feminists campaigning to end male violence towards women and girls should try to work alongside police and other criminal justice agencies to achieve change, whilst still scrutinising them and holding them to account.

But none of us that do this work are naive enough to think that we can change hearts and minds of the most entrenched misogynists. There needs to be a system in place where police officers known to commit acts of violence and abuse against women should be out of a job, but this very rarely happens.

On occasion, I have accompanied police during their brothel visits and street prostitution patrols, as part of my work on research projects and journalistic investigations into the sex trade. 

On these visits, I have heard the most grotesque “banter.” In some cases, police officers barely mentioned the punters at all, whilst referring to the women selling sex as “hookers”, “slags”, and “whores”. When I spoke to the women on the streets, out of police earshot, many of them told me that some police officers were not averse to a freebie in return for turning a blind eye. Some women disclosed rape and violence at the hands of on duty police officers.

It sounds shocking, but it makes perfect sense that violent men seek out positions where they have power over women, and protection from the consequences of their actions. There is no reason to expect that male behaviours towards women in civilian life will not be replicated in the force. Attitudes translate into action. When somebody shows you who they are, believe them. 

The canteen culture of old is alive and well

In the late 1990s I worked in a London police station as a civilian, within a domestic violence project. I saw the way some male officers identified with and related to perpetrators of the most horrendous violence towards women, whilst judging I’m blaming the victims. More than one of those women ended up dead at the hands of their perpetrator. This cannot be separated from the type of casual sexism by serving officers that would be so easy to brush aside as typical male banter. After all, “boys will be boys”. But ignoring such attitudes translate into injustice for women. 

The iconic former police detective, Jackie Malton, was the real-life inspiration for the character of DCI Jane Tennison of Prime Suspect. I was lucky enough to work alongside her in 2015 on a Radio 4 documentary on sexism in the police service. Malton served during the 1970s and 1980, and witnessed the most horrific sexism and misogyny, and unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, in my research for the documentary I found sexism still in place across the force.

The canteen culture of old is alive and well. It needs to be rooted out once and for all. Female officers need to be given proper protection so that they can whistle blow without fear of bullying, harassment or even dismissal from the job. And we need to stop pretending it is a situation of “a few bad apples,” when the entire barrel is rotten.

There is a culture of institutionalised misogyny in the police service. There is absolutely no point in a public inquiry into “issues raised by the conviction of Wayne Couzens”. This will do nothing more than focus on one man in, in my view, and attempt to appease the public into believing that the problem has been solved. Rather, we need a Stephen Lawrence type inquiry looking at the way women are treated both within and outside of the police. 

The government has long resisted such a statutory inquiry, so they have to be made to change their minds. The indomitable Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ), alongside 20 national women’s organisations are planning a judicial review to challenge the resistance to such a measure. The feminist fix is never to take it lying down.

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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