Time’s up: UK police culture shift is long overdue
Content warning: this article contains references to sexual assault, rape and femicide.
Cressida Dick, head of London’s Metropolitan Police, recently quit her job under pressure from the Mayor of London. She stands accused of persistently failing to tackle major problems – not least an evident culture of misogyny. Not only is the force failing to protect women – there are examples of it actively endangering them. Public trust in the police has been further degraded by the Met’s failure to take seriously evidence that Prime Minister Boris Johnson repeatedly breached pandemic rules. It’s high time to change the culture of policing in the UK. It’s the worst possible time for the government to try to extend police powers even further.
Cressida Dick’s resignation was a long time coming. In 2017 she’d made headlines as the first woman to hold the post of Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police – head of Greater London’s police force, the UK’s largest. But she soon faced mounting accusations of failing to act on overwhelming evidence of institutionalised misogyny and racism. She finally resigned after losing the confidence of London Mayor Sadiq Khan. The process to appoint her replacement is beginning – but there are bigger questions that need to be addressed.
A dismal response to police femicide
Sarah Everard was walking home on 3 March 2021 when she was falsely arrested, kidnapped, raped and murdered by serving Met police officer Wayne Couzens. Couzens received a life sentence in September.
Couzens used his status as a police officer and police equipment to carry out his crime. His nickname among fellow officers was ‘the rapist’. He was part of a WhatsApp group where misogynistic and racist messages were shared among officers. He’d likely exposed himself to strangers years before. But none of these warning signs got in the way of his police career; without being properly vetted, in 2020 he was assigned to the Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection Branch.
The murder of Sarah Everard by a serving police officer led to a national outpouring of grief and anger. Anger was fuelled by an official response that, instead of tackling the police’s lack of accountability, offered the usual platitudes and insulting recommendations for women to improve their safety, as ever placing responsibility on female victims rather than male perpetrators of violence.
Newly formed campaigning group Reclaim These Streets spoke to this anger when it planned to hold a vigil on 13 March on Clapham Common, close to the place Sarah was last seen. The police insisted this would be an illegal gathering under pandemic rules. Under pressure the organisers cancelled the event. But people turned up anyway, as they did at vigils in other UK cities. By early evening several hundred people had gathered around Clapham Common’s bandstand, placing flowers in tribute.
The police’s crass response to this distanced and peaceful protest was to wade in, trample on the flowers and break it up. The world watched in astonishment as police dragged away women expressing grief at the murder of a woman by a police officer. A parliamentary inquiry later found the police had breached fundamental rights. Cressida Dick stonewalled on criticism.
A misogynistic culture
The Met repeatedly showed that it doesn’t understand it has a problem with gender-based violence. In June 2020, two sisters, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, were killed in a London park. Their family accused the police of showing little urgency when they reported the ethnic-minority sisters missing. It was a search by the family rather than the police that found their bodies.
Concerns about racism and misogyny intensified when in 2021 it emerged that two police officers supposedly guarding the crime scene took selfies with the dead bodies and shared them in a WhatsApp group of over 40 police officers, adding sexist, racist and other degrading remarks.
The two officers pleaded guilty in November and received jail sentences in December. They were caught and paid the price – but what stood out, observed Mina Smallman, the victims’ mother, was how secure the officers felt in their vile behaviour. Their actions must have seemed normal among their peers.
The stories just kept piling up. In January, the Met apologised and paid compensation to academic Konstancja Duff years after she was arrested, strip searched and subjected to vile misogynist insults.
Creepily, evidence even emerged of Met officers trying to use their status to make sexual conquests. Kristina O’Connor is currently taking legal action against the Met: when she reported an attempted mugging, the responding officer seemed more interested in dating her than dealing with the crime, repeatedly sending inappropriate messages. The officer was found guilty of gross misconduct but kept his job regardless.
Patsy Stevenson, who unwillingly provided the iconic image of the Clapham Common vigil as she was wrestled away by police, reported that around 50 police officers and security guards had liked her Tinder profile in the aftermath of the vigil – something she obviously found intimidating.
These are not trivial incidents – they are evidence of a culture in which male police officers routinely abuse their power in the expectation they’ll get away with it.
Voices from the frontline
Anna Birley is co-founder of Reclaim These Streets, which speaks up against street harassment of women and girls, educates boys and men to take responsibility for the problem of violence against women and girls, and challenges the misogyny embedded in the ways laws are written and enforced. Reclaim These Streets formed and called for a vigil following Sarah Everard’s disappearance in March 2021.
Misogyny is not just a policing problem; it is a societal problem. Misogynists are the product of a society that sees women and girls as less. This manifests in countless structural inequalities: unequal pay, women doing more menial jobs, women being seen as home keepers and not being able to go back to the workplace, women being seen as objects and sexualised from a young age.
The institutions that are doing better at shaking these views are those that are more diverse, transparent and accountable, that welcome whistleblowing and reward those who call out bad behaviour. But the police force is simply not set up that way. It is not diverse enough so it has a distinct white male culture, and so it is perhaps less open to and tolerant of difference. It is the kind of profession in which comradeship is important for staying safe – but this can also result in police officers protecting each other at the expense of women, victims or the public. It can promote a defensive attitude and an unwillingness to confront problems.
We know that for women to be respected and treated as equals, police reform is necessary, but it is not sufficient. What we need is to change the culture that sends girls to take self-defence classes instead of teaching boys to respect women.
This partly requires changing the law, because it currently does not give enough importance to crimes that specifically affect women. The law should take more seriously some supposedly ‘minor’ crimes, such as flashing, which is a predatory power move that can also be a stepping stone towards more serious behaviour.
Part of the work is about changing culture, which is very hard to do. We are doing some work in schools for boys and girls to have conversations about consent and respect, reach an understanding of what misogyny is and think about ways in which they can champion gender equality. We campaign for women’s safety, mostly on social media, on a regular basis, not just when the ‘perfect victim’ captures the headlines.
Our experience is a cautionary tale about police powers. Police are being allowed to make judgement calls they are ill-equipped to make. They shouldn’t be given as much power to interpret the law – it isn’t their role. They should have less power than they currently have, not more.
The police, crime, sentencing and courts bill goes in the wrong direction. It’s a draconian piece of legislation that will grant the police even more powers and will restrict the right to protest. It appears to be aimed at placating people who were annoyed at climate protests for slowing down traffic or at Black Lives Matter protesters for defacing statues. It prioritises the circulation of traffic and the integrity of statues over the human right to express dissent, which is very dangerous.
We were pleased Cressida Dick stepped down, because she had failed to tackle the culture problem of the Met. At the end of the day, leaders need to be held accountable for the organisations they run, and the buck stops there. When you are unwilling to even admit there’s a problem, let alone put together a plan to fix it, you become part of the problem.
But Cressida’s resignation shouldn’t allow the rest of the police force off the hook. Fixing an institutional problem requires more than one person to leave. I hope her successor is not only a feminist but also someone who comes in ready to admit that there is a problem, is willing to ask for help and develops a robust approach to tackle the various forms of bullying and discrimination – misogyny and sexism, racism and homophobia – that are pervasive and create a nasty working environment that prevents others from calling it out.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Anna. Read the full interview here.
An epidemic of violence against women
The familiar line trotted out when police officers get caught doing wrong is that they’re just ‘a few bad apples’ rather than part of a systemic problem. But the evidence increasingly points to a pattern.
The tipping point for Dick’s resignation was an investigation into the Charing Cross police station in Central London. It found police officers used Facebook and WhatsApp to share jokes about raping and hitting women, the death of Black infants and the Holocaust. The investigation made clear that there were more than ‘a few bad apples’– the whole culture was rotten.
The culture reeked of entitlement and expectation of impunity – the officers sharing hate speech didn’t think they were doing anything wrong. This was normal for them – so normal that of 14 officers investigated, only two were dismissed for gross misconduct. Two got promoted.
Little wonder public trust in the police is falling. Last October, an opinion poll showed 47 per cent of women and 40 per cent of men had lower trust in the police following the murder of Sarah Everard; 71 per cent agreed that the culture of policing must change to respond better to violence against women and girls. The problem was acknowledged the following month by the new national police lead for violence against women and girls, who said trust between women and the police had been ‘broken’.
Restoring that trust will take lots of work, because the police’s response to gender-based violence is palpably failing. In 2020 the government apologised to rape survivors over a record low level of rape convictions. In July 2021 a government inspectorate concluded that there is an epidemic of violence against women and girls. Last December the independent victim’s commissioner for London found that almost two thirds of women who report rape drop their complaint within a month – a proportion that has tripled in two years. Just one per cent of rape cases in London now make it to trial. The victim’s commissioner says rape has ‘effectively been decriminalised’.
Government parties and political failure
When Dick took over, there was hope. She was not only the first woman but also the first out lesbian to lead the Met. But she rose through the ranks not by challenging the elite, but by joining it. At every turn, her reaction to criticism of the police was defensive and dismissive, insisting there were only those ‘few bad apples’. She was part of the culture and defended the culture.
An important lesson here is that getting people from excluded groups into positions of leadership is not enough – nothing will change unless the newcomers actively challenge structures of power from within.
Under Dick, the Met did the opposite of challenging power structures – it defended inadmissible conduct by those at the very top of power, leading to a further haemorrhaging of trust.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his inner circle faced a slew of damning evidence that they breached the pandemic rules they set and expected everyone else to live by. Numerous tales emerged of party after party held at Johnson’s offices when social gatherings were strictly forbidden.
Anger mounted as people contrasted their own experiences of sacrifice during lockdowns with the recklessness and sense of entitlement of their leaders. Approval ratings for Johnson and his Conservative Party collapsed.
While the police responded with highly publicised fines when members of the public breached pandemic rules – people were even fined for attending Sarah Everard vigils – now the Met stood by, refusing to act on a pile-up of evidence of law-breaking at the heart of government. The Met did nothing until a report of an inquiry into party allegations from Sue Gray, a senior government official, was due. At the eleventh hour the Met announced it was opening an investigation after all, which meant that important details on key events would have to be kept out of Gray’s report. While Gray’s interim conclusions were still damning, it isn’t known when the full report might appear.
Many saw the Met bending over backwards to protect a governing elite under pressure and questioned how serious its investigation might be. In an unusually passive approach, the Met sent a questionnaire to over 50 people alleged to have been at the parties, including Johnson, and announced it would not publish the names of anyone fined for breaking the rules.
The government is now set to appoint a new head of its biggest police force – one that is currently investigating those who will make the appointment.
Bad timing for the extension of police powers
Incredibly, at a time of declining trust in both the government and the police, the government is determined to give the police still more powers and make them even less accountable. The draconian police, crime, sentencing and courts bill is currently making its way through the UK parliament. It would vastly extend police stop-and-search and surveillance powers and give the police greater powers to prevent and break up protests.
Police are being allowed to make judgement calls they are ill-equipped to make. They shouldn’t be given as much power to interpret the law – it isn’t their role. They should have less power than they currently have, not more.
The bill has attracted widespread civil society condemnation and is the subject of international concern, including from United Nations human rights experts. Already numerous people have been met with violent and excessive policing during protests against it.
When the bill was considered by parliament’s House of Lords in January, parliamentarians removed some of its worst clauses, doing their best to protect the right to protest. While some of these clauses can’t be reintroduced, other draconian amendments may yet be added by the House of Commons, where the Conservative Party has a large majority.
In an attempt to keep the party’s most right-wing politicians and voters onside, Johnson is reported to have launched a barrage of initiatives called ‘Operation Red Meat’. Acting tough on policing will likely be part of this. There’s every chance a bad piece of legislation could yet get worse.
Time for a rethink
With its largely gun-free force, the UK has always worked on an assumption that policing is based on consent. In reality this has always been something of a comforting fiction: for many people, including many women, Black people, other ethnic minorities and people from lower social classes, the police have always been a hostile presence. But the gap in trust has widened: now only half of Londoners believe the Met is doing a good job.
For the Met, Dick’s resignation represents a key opportunity for change. The government shouldn’t rush to make an appointment. It should consult widely, including with groups working to end gender-based violence and defend the rights of victims. No one under investigation for breaking pandemic rules, Johnson included, should play any part in the decision.
Whoever gets the job should commit to a strong and public plan to address gender-based violence and change the Met’s culture. The performance of the new Commissioner should be assessed against this plan.
Despite its current House of Commons majority, the government should take into account its falling public support and the huge concerns expressed about the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill. This is the worst possible time to be extending police powers and reducing police accountability. Instead, it’s time for Johnson and his government to try something new: show some humility, recognise that nobody is above the law and start to listen.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The UK government should consult widely, including with women’s rights groups, before appointing the new Met Commissioner.
The Met should commit to a thorough review of its internal culture in order to eliminate institutional misogyny and racism and better protect women from violence.
The UK government should pause the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill and hold further consultations to better balance police powers with fundamental freedoms.
Cover photo by Guy Smallman/Getty Images