If Not Now, When?

If Not Now, When?

There is always a clue. Sometimes more than one. Often hiding in plain sight, if only others used their eyes.

On Friday, Wayne Couzens, a former Metropolitan Police officer and member of the Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection Squad, authorised to carry a firearm, pleaded guilty to the murder of Sarah Everard earlier this year. He had earlier pleaded guilty to her kidnap and rape. The story of what he did to her is harrowing.

Despite his planning and attempts to cover his tracks, he gave his police mobile number to the firm from which he hired the car he used for the kidnap. That mistake (or arrogance) was what caught him. The number plate was caught on CCTV next to where Sarah was last seen; the telephone numbers were run through the police database. One can only imagine the reaction of those doing that search when they realised that their prime suspect was a serving police officer, moreover one who would have had to go through an enhanced level of vetting for his role and his authority to carry firearms.

Perhaps they should not have been so shocked. Following his arrest, we learnt that a few days earlier he had been caught indecently exposing himself elsewhere in South London. No action was taken and this is now the subject of a separate police investigation.

This weekend we also learnt that:-

1. He had been accused of indecent exposure six years ago, again with no action being taken.

2. When in the Civil Nuclear Constabulary protecting Sellafield, his nickname among colleagues was “The Rapist” because his behaviour towards women colleagues was so creepy.

It would be unsurprising if more were to come out about his behaviour and attitudes. As of now there are 12 police officers in at least two police forces under investigation with regard to what they did or did not do re the investigation and the Everard murder.

There are a number of points worth making, even on the basis of this limited information.

1. It is usually best to avoid hiring wrong’uns into your organization. Or at least try to. An obvious point perhaps but one which is not in practice always taken as seriously as it should be. Keeping someone out is a whole load easier and less time-consuming than trying to get them out later. The refusal to admit a mistake was made, the belief in HR development and appraisals, fear of Employment Tribunals are powerful forces favouring inertia.

Cressida Dick wants a change to the law allowing her to favour ethnic minority recruits. Whatever its desirability, a more urgent priority should surely be to recruit those without criminal convictions, dubious records or poor character and to get rid of those officers who have been convicted. As at March 2021 there were 150 serving Met officers with criminal convictions (drugs, damage, assault and firearms). Representing the population is desirable. Having law-enforcers who are not law-breakers is essential.

2. Checking CVs, due diligence, vetting really matter. Small inconsistencies, missing information, stories which do not add up, which do not correspond with what was said in interview, which are changed are warning signs and should never be ignored. They too often are. Vetting is too often outsourced to juniors far away, too often treated as an administrative step to be completed rather than as a key part of the decision-making process. If someone warns you about a person’s reputation (as happened with a notorious fraudster) don’t ignore it just because you don’t have a procedure to deal with with it. Due diligence is not a paper exercise: it is trying to find out about a person’s character, what they are like when they are not shiny faced and trying to impress you.

Bluntly, if the Met’s enhanced vetting allowed someone like Couzens to hold a firearm and guard Parliamentarians, what is the point of it? Or was it the case that it simply was not done well – or at all? Improving this must surely be top of the Met’s To Do List. Is it?

3. Remember that, whatever sector you are in, you are managing risk. This should be blindingly obvious to the police. If someone dubious gets past your first line of defence, they’ve learnt that your defences are not great. They’ve learnt how to fool you and get away with it. How seriously do you think they’re going to take your training and your other defence systems? How are you going to manage a risk you don’t even know you have?

4. Don’t ignore the small stuff. Not every person indecently exposing themself goes on to rape and murder. Not every person telling a lie on a CV becomes a fraudster. But can you tell the difference between those who will and those who won’t? And do you want to take the risk of getting it wrong?

Perhaps indecent exposure (a crime) was seen as a bit of a joke? Perhaps creepy behaviour towards women was seen as him simply being a bit of a lad? Maybe the women were seen as unduly sensitive and their concerns downplayed? The police investigations may reveal answers.

Even more worryingly, there appears to be a systemic problem within the Met regarding its officers’ attitude to women and sexual crimes. Ms Dick first raised the gap between the number of female employees the Met has (33%) and the fact that a majority of London’s population (51%) is female in November 2018. She might ask herself why women are so reluctant to join the force. Perhaps the following might provide some clues. A quarter of the 555 officers barred from joining any police force since 2017 served in the Met. A fifth of the offences leading to barring relate to sexual, harassment or domestic violence offences. Between 2012 -2018 there were 594 complaints of sexual misconduct against Met officers, of which 119 were upheld, resulting in disciplinary action. Only 63 resulted in the officer leaving.

It is unclear whether any of them resulted in criminal action. This is simply unacceptable: sexual offences are not a case of bad manners or breaches of internal procedures. They are crimes, often very serious ones. They are not something just to be dealt with in-house. Why would anyone – any woman – have confidence in an officer described as showing “a ready willingness to take advantage of his position of trust to engage in unwanted physical contact” or another judged to have been acting as an “online sexual predator“?

Since this header criticising Ms Dick over her response to the Morgan report, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Democracy and the Constitution criticised the Met’s approach to the Clapham protests, criticisms raising important points about the Met’s arbitrary use of its powers, its confusion between law-making and law-enforcement and an inconsistent position in relation to protests by women by comparison with other groups. None of this seems to have shaken Ms Dick’s belief that, while there have been a few regrettable mistakes, there is nothing fundamental which needs to change. She is wrong. Endless investigations into previous mistakes will do little to change a poor culture if those at the top – her and her senior team – do not accept the need for change.

And if they don’t now, after everything that has happened, will they ever?


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