Last week, International Women’s Day, and all its associated events, was overshadowed by the shocking news of the kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard.
By the end of the week, its sombre shadow had fallen across Mothering Sunday (Mothers’ Day) as well. We inevitably wondered what turmoil of emotions Sarah’s mother might be experiencing.
Every aspect of what we have come to know about the crime has been horrible. And there is no way of protecting her family as each new detail emerges. At times such as this we appreciate all the more the largely hidden but vital role of the police family liaison officers.
But just as last year the death of George Floyd in the USA awakened in many African Americans memories of their own daily experiences of abuse, something similar seems to have happened for many of this country’s women with the death of Sarah Everard. In one event I attended (remotely) to mark International Women’s Day, speaker after speaker told of sexual abuse they had been subjected to from predatory men at one time or another in their lives. Some older women said they had never felt able to speak about this before. This is clearly a moment of catharsis and significance, with big implications for policing and criminal justice.
Issues are emerging that we are only partly addressing: abuse on-line; abuse in the workplace or in public places; low levels of convictions for rape; reluctance to report; and so on.
There is also a growing consensus that there must be a focus on men’s behaviour, otherwise, in the rare instances where women are subject to violent assault, we will go on making women feel either ashamed or responsible for what happens to them at the hands of men. This is wrong and is one of the major problems we have to address.
I commission support and counselling services for victims of sexual violence. We have a sexual assault referral centre (SARC) where it is made absolutely clear to victims that it is not them but the offender who is responsible for what has happened to them. Training is given to frontline police officers so that they recognise and understand what domestic abuse is and what they must do about it. I also fund a programme that seeks to work with perpetrators of abuse to prevent further offending.
But much of this support and intervention is after the event. We need to prevent sexual abuse happening in the first place. This is why I give grants to groups that work with young people, teaching them to be respectful towards one another. It is also a prime focus of the Violence Reduction Unit. They have been working on a programme that trains young people to be mentors to their fellow students in violence prevention. I saw this in operation in Glasgow. Young people were taking classes and engaging with their peers in how they could cease to be bystanders when unacceptable behaviour happened around them.
And as with most big societal issues, this will need more than a single initiative. If there is a continuum between lower level abuse and serious violence, we need to find ways of making early interventions if we are to stop rapes and homicide – because the serious and violent assaults take place in a more general climate in which certain behaviours by men towards women are thought acceptable. And here we all have a part to play in making our communities safer, not least by teaching our children what safe, respectful relationships are.
Sometimes we can feel that a shocking incident happens, there is a great outpouring of public grief and anger, and then it all subsides and everything is forgotten – until, the next time. But last Saturday’s commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Dunblane shootings tells another story. As well as remembering the 16 children and their teacher who were killed in their school by a man with a handgun, and the many others who were injured, we should also remember that change did follow.
At the time of the killings, it was not illegal to possess a handgun. The mothers of Dunblane began the Snowdrop Campaign to change the law and public attitudes towards handgun possession. These attempts were at first resisted, particularly by the government who made all sorts of excuses about how difficult it would be to legislate. But the law was changed and it is now illegal to own a handgun in this country. Organised crime gangs will try to possess them, which is why we have an Armed Crime Team tasked with finding them.
And attitudes have changed. Unlike the United States, almost no one here thinks that possessing a hand gun is necessary for self-protection. On the contrary, we are among the safest places on earth because handguns are illegal. We need the same determined response around attitudes towards sexual behaviour. To bring about that change would be the most fitting memorial there could be to Sarah Everard and the many other women who have suffered similarly.
Between a rock and a hard place
On the one hand, the police do not want to alienate the public they are here to serve. On the other, they must enforce the law. Most of the time this does not result in conflict. When it does, or has the potential to do so, the police have to think very carefully about their options. It’s not just a matter of what they do, it is how they do it and how they talk about what they do: the narratives that explain actions are just as important as the actions themselves. What is said has to be convincing. Words have to be chosen with care. Tone matters.
The police have been under a lot of pressure recently from the Home Secretary and ministers to step up their enforcement of the law around people gathering together – because of the risk of increasing infections and prolonging the lock-down. We all understand that.
We also understand why many women felt a compulsion to hold a vigil for Sarah Everard on Clapham Common last week. That was obviously going to present a problem given the rules about leaving home and gathering. It was essential that a compromise was found because if it wasn’t, it was clear that some people, perhaps many, would seek to gather anyway. And public support for police action might not be so understanding.
Of all forces in the country, the Met could least afford to lose support. Its use of stop and search has already brought criticism from the black community. It could hardly afford to alienate women as well. That is most of the population of London.
But the police don’t make the rules around coronavirus, politicians do. So politicians who make the rules also need to do some explaining about what they think the police should have done last Saturday. It is hard to believe that ministers could not have intervened and found a way to make the holding of a socially distanced and managed vigil on this occasion and in this place an exception under the rules.
Even so, we ask our police to act in ways that are measured and proportionate. Yes, the Met were between a rock and a hard place, but what finally transpired was the worst of all worlds.
More lessons to be learnt at the end of a week of learning lessons.
I hope you are staying safe and well.