The murder of Sarah Everard, the 33 year old woman who disappeared while walking home in south London, has rightly led to public outcry about the endemic problems of femicide, rape and domestic violence. Less has been said about the fact that a Metropolitan police officer has been arrested for her kidnap and murder. At the very least this ought to remind us that there isn’t just one kind of Bad Man. Men who harass, stalk, threaten, beat, rape and kill are among us. They can be family members, they can be rich and respected, and they can be those accorded trust by the state such as police officers. But perhaps this horrible set of events should prompt us to think a little deeper about the role of the police within a patriarchal society.
Common sense would have it that the police exist to protect ‘innocent’ people, and that their presence on the streets makes it safer for women like Sarah Everard walking home at night. Sadly this was not the case for Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry who were murdered in another London park last summer. A pair of police officers took ‘inappropriate’ photographs of the murder scene, which they then shared around. In fact, there is much evidence to suggest that the high status and exceptional levels of authority granted policemen actually enhance their ability to abuse and control women, including their own wives and girlfriends. Last year Alexandra Heal revealed how ‘Police officers and staff across the UK were reported for alleged domestic abuse almost 700 times in the three years up to April 2018.’ They used their police powers to further harass their partners, such as getting them arrested on spurious grounds and stalking them in squad cars. Just 3.9% of those police officers reported were convicted, compared with 6.2% among the general population. Strikingly, ‘less than a quarter of reports resulted in any sort of professional discipline.’ Given this general tendency to ‘look after its own’, it’s not particularly surprising to learn that no action was taken by the police when, only three days before Sarah Everard disappeared, the police officer now arrested for her murder was reported for indecently exposing himself to another woman in south London.
The police force is just as guilty as any other male-dominated institution of the misogynistic belief that is women’s responsibility to protect themselves from rape and violence. The Reclaim the Night marches were started by the Women’s Liberation Movement in 1977, not just in response to the multiple murders of women by Peter Sutcliffe but also out of anger at the police response which was to impose a curfew not on men but on women. Sadly, it appears that little has been learned by some members of the Metropolitan Police, who, in the days following the disappearance of Sarah Everard, reportedly told women living in Clapham that they should not go out alone.
The Metropolitan Police also banned – although did not succeed in preventing – the #reclaimthesestreets vigils called in response to Sarah Everard’s murder. This was in spite of organisers engaging in extensive discussions with the police, including making several suggestions as to how to accommodate the Covid 19 regulations and asking the police for their own suggestions. This attempt to block to women’s right to protest is surely not incidental to the public relations disaster of ‘one of their own’ being identified as the perpetrator. It also needs to be understood against a backdrop of increasing crackdowns on the right to protest, especially the Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill that will be debated in the Commons on 15 March. This Bill will vastly extend police powers to decide where, when and how citizens are allowed to protest, and increase penalties for those breaching these new rules. Scenes from Saturday night’s vigils, where police wrestled women to the ground and arrested peaceful protesters, may simply augur the new normal if this Bill is passed.
If you’re a Black woman, sex worker, homeless woman or trans woman you’re probably under no illusions about the police being there to protect you. We don’t have to believe that every policeman is a murderer or wife-beater to recognise the patriarchal implications of a state institution which arms a group of men and gives them exceptional powers with very little accountability. Nevertheless, there are many progressives (including some liberal feminists and Labour MPs) who continue to support the idea of more bobbies on the beat as a way to make our streets safer. There are no easy answers. Thinking through a world without the police, and coming up with alternatives to calling them in moments of crisis, have been re-energised since the latest wave of Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020. And the knotty questions of what to do when you witness domestic violence or you’ve been sexually assaulted, have generated much careful discussion and require alternative support networks. We all need to do that hard work if we’re serious about ending violence against women – whether that’s carried out by your partner, a stranger, a lone police officer on a dark night, or the Metropolitan Police force in the direct public eye with the full backing of the government.
(image courtesy Washington News Post)