The Sarah Everard vigil showed that police are part of the problem

Giving them more powers is not the answer.

Yasmin Al-Najar is a Manchester-based freelance journalist who covers a variety of topics including human rights, law, culture, politics and social justice and social issues.

Hundreds of women gathered on Saturday night in Clapham Common to grieve the loss of Sarah Everard. Among them was Grace Blakeley, a writer for Tribune Magazine. “It could so easily have happened to any of us” she told me by email.

Underneath women’s trauma and grief lies hurt and anger. Grace, like many others, is deeply angry that the Metropolitan Police has failed to acknowledge its systemic problems and that they chose to respond to a peaceful vigil with “outright violence”. She said that neither the police nor the government has addressed “the very real concerns raised by women and black people about the threats posed by police officers themselves”. 

Katy Griffith arrived at the vigil around 6pm. “It was a thoughtful atmosphere and it felt reflective and unifying,” she said. “We found strength being with each other”. But at dusk, police began to gradually move in and the kettling and violence began.

Katy’s friend was approached by an officer, who demanded her name and address. When she refused he threatened her with an arrest in front of her son. This intimidation tactic, along with kettling, was used during the Black Lives Matter protests last year.

“I lost faith in the police a long time ago” Katy told me. At work, she supports women who experience sexual violence. “Their attackers don’t even make it to sentencing” she said.

The response from authorities has only fuelled pre-existing distrust and confirmed, in many people’s minds, that the police are not the solution. In fact, they are part of the problem.

Miscarriages of justice

Last year, two officers sent photographs of themselves next to two dead young black women to six colleagues, none of whom reported them. Now, a year on, a Metropolitan Police officer guarding Sarah’s murder scene sent colleagues misogynistic messages about her.

After the vigil, a woman said she was dismissed when she told officers that a man had flashed at her. This is despite Sarah’s suspected killer, a constable, escalating his uninvestigated crime of flashing a woman to killing a woman three days later. History is repeating itself and those in power are failing to hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes.

Rape prosecutions and convictions have more than halved in three years while rapes have risen. In 2018, the Metropolitan Police’s failure to investigate previous rape allegations against John Worboys enabled him to rape more than 100 women in the space of six years. 

Police officers themselves are often abusive to their partners and rarely punished.The Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that Greater Manchester Police, one of the country’s biggest forces, only secured one conviction for domestic abuse carried out by a serving police officer. This is despite there being 79 reports in three years.

Nearly 100 women across the country told the Bureau that their abusive officer partners had used their status, knowledge and access to the legal system to intimidate or harass them, which include stalking in a marked police car, threatening jail time and even sending their fellow officers to arrest them. 

To serve and protect who?

Police do not only fail to uphold our human rights but also seek to suppress them along with the government. As human rights barrister, Adam Wagner tweeted “police have a legal duty under the Human Rights Act to facilitate lawful protest” but they chose not to.

Ultimately police are to serve and protect the national security state. This is why police spy on charities, campaigners and trade unions, and arrest journalists and legal observers, who hold powers accountable and expose their crimes. It is also why UK law enforcers use live facial recognition despite it breaching citizens’ privacy rights and affecting their rights to freedom of expression and association. 

Women are given measly protections like more street lighting and placing undercover police officers in bars to prevent harassment, which will actually give them more scope to abuse their powers. Neither ‘solution’ tackles systemic policing issues.

Now they are threatened with being criminalised for protesting as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (PCSC Bill), which passed its second reading on Tuesday with a strong Conservative majority of 359 votes to 263.

Clive Efford called the bill “a Tory-led coup without guns”. The bill will grant police powers to prevent or restrict protests conducted by groups as well as lone individuals if they will “result in serious disruption to the activities of an organisation”. 

The language is deliberately vague so that political dissidents can be punished including trade unionists, Black Lives Matter and climate change activists. Evasive language was used in the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Criminal Conduct Bill (“spy cops” bill) to justify giving MI5 agents immunity to commit serious crimes.

The Conservative Government have been trying to gut the Human Rights Act for years. From planning to skirt around the European Convention on Human Rights in order to quickly deport asylum seekers, to attempting to stop British troops from being prosecuted for war crimes. 

The primary function of policing is to protect property not women’s safety. In the U.K.  97% of young women have been sexually harassed, and yet the bill doesn’t increase minimum sentences for sexual offenders or speed up the processing of cases.

Instead, citizens will face up to 10 years for damaging memorials and statues based on their “emotional, symbolic value”. Vandals would serve a longer sentence than many rapists. This law only furthers the misogynistic attitudes that marginalise women.

The PCSC Bill also sets a terrible precedent for a wider abuse of powers. The police already feel emboldened enough to abuse their powers. Giving them more will only exacerbate the pre-existing inequalities and institutional brutality marginalised communities face.  

Women need other spaces to turn to where they feel safe and heard. Several cuts to women’s services have resulted in 64% of victims being turned away from shelters, potentially sending them back to their abuser. The government need to give grassroots communities, who are specialists in their own fields, the money and resources they need to help people.

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