London’s Metropolitan Police has issued advice to women approached by lone police officers in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder, including telling them to run “into a house,” “wave down a bus” or call the police on 999 if they do not believe the officer is “who they say they are” after questioning them.
Prosecutors said Everard was walking to her London home on March 3 when serving police officer Wayne Couzens used his police identification and handcuffs to deceive her into getting in his car under the pretense that she had violated Covid-19 rules. He raped her and strangled her with his police belt later that evening.
Couzens was sentenced Thursday to a whole-life prison term, which is very rare in the United Kingdom and reserved for exceptionally serious crimes. It means the defendant is never considered for parole.
In a press briefing on Thursday, Assistant Commissioner for the Metropolitan Police Nick Ephgrave said: “The majority of Metropolitan Police officers patrol and conduct their duty in uniform in the company of other police officers.”
He added that while officers do sometimes patrol in plain clothes, plain clothes officers are “almost invariably … deployed in pairs or in larger groups.”
“It is very unusual for a plain clothes police officer to be deployed on their own, and even more unusual for them to engage with a member of the public on their own,” Ephgrave said.
The Met added in a written statement made Thursday that if someone is approached by a single plain clothes officer, they should “seek further reassurance of that officer’s identify and intentions,” by asking “some very searching questions of that officer.”
The questions recommended are: “Where are your colleagues? Where have you come from? Why are you here?, and exactly why are you stopping or talking to me?”
The statement added those approached should “try to seek some independent verification of what they say, if they have a radio ask to hear the voice of the operator, even ask to speak through the radio to the operator to say who you are and for them to verify you are with a genuine officer, acting legitimately.”
“If after all of that you feel in real and imminent danger and you do not believe the officer is who they say they are, for whatever reason, then I would say you must seek assistance – shouting out to a passer-by, running into a house, knocking on a door, waving a bus down or if you are in the position to do so calling 999.”
However, the Met has come under criticism from some women’s rights groups and opposition MPs for the advice.
“The statement from the Met, and this advice in particular shows a fundamental lack of insight into the issue of women’s safety with the police. It doesn’t even recognize the huge power imbalance between a police officer and someone they are arresting,” the Women’s Equality Party said on Twitter.
A local Liberal Democrat councilor in the borough of Sutton in London, Jenny Batt, tweeted: “That the Met has issued this advice shows how far they have failed & how much trust & legitimacy they have lost amongst women. Information coming out about Couzens & his interactions with other officers compounding this. We need a complete overhaul of police vetting procedures.”
“Following his arrest, as the public would expect, we reviewed [Couzens’] vetting. This review confirmed he passed vetting processes. However, it also found one of a range of checks may not have been undertaken correctly,” the Met said in a press release on Thursday.
Opposition Labour MP Angela Rayner, tweeted in response to the advice: “What is going on at the top of the Metropolitan Police? Give me strength.”
The UK government’s crime and policing minister on Friday also said people should question a plain clothes officer and if in doubt, call the police, as the service reckons with a wave of public distrust in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder.
Speaking to Sky News, Kit Malthouse said: “If anybody has any doubts about a police officer, then obviously they should question the officer about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. If there are any doubts at all, they should ask to either speak to the control room using the officer’s radio, or if in doubt, call 999 and ask a question.”
Officers “rarely deploy singly” and it would be “perfectly reasonable” for anyone approached by a lone officer to “seek reassurance,” he said. “I’m afraid that’s where we’ve got to,” he added.
The minister also defended Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick who is under pressure to resign given the misconduct in the force under her watch, particularly in its handling of Everard’s case and the police’s response.