As the initial shock of the case settles, Laura Riley and Sharda Murria explore how academics working with future officers can navigate the aftermath of the shocking murder of Sarah Everard.
For us, Sarah Everard’s death has revived feelings of upset, anger and disappointment felt after the death of George Floyd. Upset at the tragic loss of life, anger at the sheer injustice by those in power, and disappointment that the actions of a police officer had lost the hard-earned trust of so many citizens. In addition to these feelings shared by so many, we also feel conflicted. How could we encourage our students to join an organisation where misogyny still exists? How must they be feeling after recent events?
We thought back to last summer where we were faced with a similar challenge in light of George Floyd. We reminded ourselves that deaths in custody and officers abducting women are not common occurrences. But they do highlight underlying issues which exist in policing; whether that is discriminatory stop and searches, misogynistic views of male officers going unreported, a culture which prevents women from being able to confidently report harassment and violence, or the lack of diversity and inclusion in policing.
As often happens in such cases, the response from those with an interest in policing has been characterised by polarisation and a coarse, unforgiving narrative which lacks empathy for the ‘other side’. From glib accusations that male officers en masse are to blame for this situation and that any nuance in criticism makes one an apologist, to aggressive condemnation of those who are understandably upset by the case, and demands that we not discuss (even obvious) failings until official enquiries conclude. It’s fair to say that academics have also not covered themselves in glory when it comes to our collective discourse around the case.
Official police responses have also been disappointing. Our hearts sank when we saw the all-too-familiar phrase ‘bad apple’ used in the Scarman Report to deny the existence of an institution-wide problem in favour of attributing blame to a few ‘bad apples’. 40 years on such phrases are still unhelpful, masking important underlying issues. Wayne Couzens was not a ‘bad apple’ who slipped under the radar. His nickname ‘the rapist’, his participation in a WhatsApp group expressing misogynistic and racist views and the arrest of one of his unit members for rape demonstrate this.
Other officers were aware of these ‘red flags’ but failed to voice them. Whether this was as a result of a culture which allows misogyny to exist ‘underground’ or a lack of support for colleagues who want to report such behaviour, the issue is clearly wider than a few ‘bad apples’. In the past decade alone there have seen women duped into sexual relationships by undercover officers and over 600 complaints of sexual misconduct by male officers in the Met (The Guardian, 2021). This is an institutional issue and needs to be addressed as such. After all, the full phrase is ‘one bad apple can spoil the barrel’.
So why does this matter to us, specifically? Because activism comes in many different forms: a march a hashtag, or rigorous reflection asking difficult questions to and about power. To play our small part in building a more positive future, we have to carefully consider discussions we have in the classroom. This means acknowledging where the defensiveness of police advocates stems from – the sacrifices made by brave men and women each and every day, seemingly rendered meaningless based on the actions of a (significant) minority. And, respectfully combatting these narratives.
This is not to placate an angry Twitter mob – it is born of genuine concern, for female citizens and the young women we teach. Women who come to us determined to make a positive difference and serve their community through Policing. If we ignore the grave allegations and damning evidence raised by such cases, we are failing them. We are complicit in the creation of an environment which may devalue or even victimise them.
If we want to create an environment conducive to rooting out misogyny and for students to internalise this as a reasonable expectation of a working environment, we must ensure that we live this truth. Those who bemoan the growth of ‘PC culture’ lament the days of free ‘banter’ and contend that any attempt to place boundaries on the workplace and education-based discourse between men and women will render such environments devoid of camaraderie and trust. This presents a false binary choice; we know it is possible to have a friendly workplace whilst reinforcing boundaries to ensure the comfort of all. We bring that philosophy into our classrooms and hope that our students will come to expect nothing less from their future employers.
We will continue to contributing to a respectful, critical, but constructive narrative. And to showcase those stances as we teach – in the hope that students will adopt such attitudes and become the sort of officers that would raise concern about Wayne Couzens, rather than feel pressure to join his Whatsapp group. This means having tough conversations – we cannot ignore black activists who have expressed frustration that it took the murder of a young white woman to gain this reaction, who have been levelling similar accusations of collusion and unaccountability and expressing the same fear and anger as expressed by white women now. The police can learn from their experiences of rebuilding lost trust with ethnic minority communities.
Empathetic and respectful policing where officers seek to understand why citizens might be reluctant to engage with the police; and where officers taking the time to explain their actions has been helped foster positive police-community relations (Tyler, 2003). Rebuilding trust requires patience, an open mind and a willingness to change. We need the police to listen to experiences of what it is like to be a woman today. Not listen to respond, but listen to understand.
To us, this is what it means to be a critical friend of policing. To empower future officers to be critical; to prepare them for the worst but to demand the best of themselves and of their colleagues. If we can do that, we can say we rose to the challenge presented to the whole country by this dreadful case. If we continue to ask difficult questions but refuse to be drawn into false oppositions, we can say we pushed British policing to do the same.
Tyler, T. (2003) Procedural Justice, Legitimacy and the Effective Rule of Law. Crime and Justice, vol 30, pp: 283-357
Smith, J. (2021) “How can women trust British police when so many have been accused of abuse?” in The Guardian [online] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jun/15/not-bad-apples-police-misogynistic-vulnerable-women-officers-accused-abuse-inquiry [Accessed 8th October 2021]