London police battle loss of trust after officer kills woman

LONDON (AP) — London police were desperately trying Friday to regain the trust of women after evidence presented in court showed that a serving officer used his position to abduct, rape and murder a marketing executive as she walked home from a friend’s house.

The Metropolitan Police Service took the unprecedented step of issuing a statement that advised women and girls on how to protect themselves if they are suspicious of officers who stop them on the street.

The statement Thursday came after evidence presented during the sentencing of Wayne Couzens showed that he used his police identification to stop 33-year-old Sarah Everard on March 3, 2021, then handcuffed her, threw her in the back of a car and drove her to a remote location where he raped and strangled her. Suggestions that earlier offenses may have been overlooked further stoked outrage.

“The full horrific details of his crimes are deeply concerning and raise entirely legitimate questions,” the department said. “We completely hear the legitimate concerns being raised and we know women are worried. All our officers are concerned about the impact of these horrific crimes on trust in the police, and we want to do all we can to rebuild that trust.”

Couzens, 48, this week was sentenced to life in prison without the possibly of parole after pleading guilty to Everard’s abduction and murder. Confidence in the police force’s ability to protect women has been further shaken by the murder of primary school teacher Sabina Nessa, 28, who was killed Sept. 17 as she walked through a south London park to meet a friend.

The department said it would soon publish a new strategy for combating violence against women.

In response to the revelations about Couzens, police stressed that it was rare for a sole plainclothes officer to question a woman, and that if this does occur other officers should arrive soon after.

It is “entirely reasonable” for women who find themselves in this situation to seek assurances about the officer’s identity, the department said. Women should ask the officer “searching questions” about the absence of other officers, why the officer is in the area and exactly why they are being stopped.

If after doing so a woman still feels she is in danger, she should shout to others on the street, knock on doors, wave down a passing bus or call 999, Britain’s emergency phone number, the police said.

But British media reverberated with outrage over what many saw as a tone-deaf response amid longstanding concerns that police haven’t made it a priority to investigate, prosecute and prevent crimes against women.

Lawmaker Jess Phillips, the opposition Labour Party’s spokesperson on domestic violence and safeguarding, said authorities need to develop a comprehensive strategy to protect women, not keep asking them to do more to protect themselves.

“I could scream, if I’m honest, about the amount of things that women are told to do,” she told the BBC. “Sarah Everard was keeping herself completely safe. She was doing exactly what any woman would do, and still this happened to her. The onus is on the Metropolitan Police to do better.”

While Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the public should continue to trust the police, he acknowledged that there must be changes in the way the criminal justice system responds to crimes against women.

“There is a problem in the way we handle rape, domestic violence, sexual violence and the way we handle the complaints of women and girls,” Johnson told reporters.

Johnson said he had convened a task force to streamline the investigation and prosecution of complaints from women.

But Aisha K. Gill, a professor of criminology at the University of Roehampton, expressed frustration at the continuing stop-gap response to the problem, saying it was time for a systemic overhaul of the criminal justice system so that police make it a priority to combat violence against women.

“That has to be at the forefront,” she said. “This is gender-based terrorism. It’s happening every day in our homes, in our streets, and we need to buckle up and ensure that another woman does not die in this way again.”