The murder of Sarah Everard sparked a nationwide discussion about women’s safety.
Sarah Everard was 33-years old when she was kidnapped while walking home on the 3rd March 2021. She had been visiting a friend’s house in Clapham Common and at the time the UK was in the middle of its 3rd national lockdown, with COVID-19 restrictions in place.
On her walk home which she had done many times before, she was stopped by police officer Wayne Couzens who claimed she was breaking COVID-19 regulations and arrested her for the breach.
He then kidnapped and drove her to Dover, where he raped her and disposed of her body, which was found on March 10th and identified shortly after.
After Sarah’s initial disappearance, posts spread and were shared across social media appealing to those local to the area to come forward if they’d seen anything and it soon became a nationwide search over the next week.
Sarah’s murder not only sparked a debate around women’s safety, but also about the role of police in British society. It emerged that Couzens had not gone through the mandatory two-year probation period with the Met nor undergone enhanced vetting.
He had also faced two other allegations of indecent exposure which had not been properly investigated and he was nicknamed “the rapist” by colleagues.
Over the last year, police culture has been increasingly criticised, as Couzens had abused his power to kidnap Sarah. There’s also been serious questions around the subsequent handling of the investigation, the response from other male police officers and the crackdown on vigils held in her memory.
So, a year on, what’s changed?
Since Sarah’s murder, there have sadly been further incidents highlighting how unsafe it really is for women in public, but there has also been some real progress made thanks to several initiatives aiming to help women if they ever feel unsafe in public.
1. Organisations have been founded in response
Reclaim These Streets
Reclaim These Streets was founded by a group of women who organised a vigil for Sarah and has since grown into a group of volunteers aiming to use legislation, education and community to ensure women’s safety.
They have held other vigils for women who have sadly gone missing or have been the victims of violence and they aim to make the streets safer for women.
The volunteers involved not only organise vigils but also speak on street harassment, educate boys and men to take responsibility for violence against women, and are working to challenge misogyny and the current laws in place and how they fail to protect women.
As many women do not feel safe walking home on their own, after Sarah’s murder Rachel Chung and Alice Jackson founded Strut Safe– an initiative to help women feel safe and supported while they’re in public on their own.
Strut Safe has over 50 UK volunteers and offers free walks home to those in Edinburgh and a free phone service for the rest of the UK.
Users can call their number and will be connected to a volunteer to remain on the phone to them while they’re walking home to help them feel safe and reduce the risk of potential harm.
Sisters Uncut is an intersectional feminist direct-action collective who are taking action for domestic violence services.
With domestic violence services in the UK facing ongoing cuts or closures, funding is needed in order to keep these services afloat and to help women who are in need or need to escape abuse.
While they were founded before Sarah’s murder, in response to the emerging details, they staged several protests against police powers and offered training to the public on how to know their rights and support others during dangerous policing situations.
Their work is ongoing and easy to get involved with to help support their mission and ensure women’s safety.
Walk Me Home
In October last year, BT chief executive Philip Jansen also announced plans for a phone tracking service known as Walk Me Home to help protect women.
The proposed service would allow consenting users (who would need to call a number to activate the service) to be tracked by GPS and send out alerts to emergency contacts and the police if they do not arrive at their destination within a reasonable timeframe.
2. Misogyny from other police officers has been addressed
In the wake of Sarah’s murder, many other police officers have faced misconduct hearings due to inappropriate behaviour and misogyny. This has only further confirmed and highlighted the issues within the police force around women’s safety.
Three officers who worked with Sarah’s murderer, Wayne Couzens, were charged after they shared racist and misogynistic messages over WhatsApp with him in 2019.
Two of the officers were still serving police officers at the time and were placed on restricted duties while the investigation took place and were later suspended.
During his sentencing, it emerged that colleagues of Wayne Couzens had also spoken out in favour of him, even after details of Sarah’s kidnapping, rape and murder had been made public knowledge.
Another officer faced misconduct proceedings after sharing an offensive meme relating to her kidnapping, but was allowed to keep his job.
It also emerged that two police officers had taken photographs of two other women who had been murdered– Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman and had shared the photos on WhatsApp. They have both since been fired and jailed for 33 months.
In addition, there was an investigation into a Charing Cross police station which found racism, misogyny, harassment and offensive social media messages from several active police officers.
It was found that they exchanged highly offensive messages claiming it was “banter” in a WhatsApp group with 17 police officers in.
Messages included references to rape, racism, homophobic language, violence and sexually explicit and misogynistic conversations, with female officers who challenged the sexual harassment told it was “part of police culture.”
Out of the 14 officers investigated, only two were fired and put on a barred list to stop them from working for the police. Another two resigned and two were disciplined, but allowed to keep their jobs.
These incidents make it clear that institutional misogyny is still rife within the police and that sadly, Sarah’s murder is not an isolated incident.
While this crackdown on inappropriate behaviour brings some comfort, real changes still need to be made within the police force in order to ensure women’s safety and to rebuild the trust women should have in the police to keep them safe.
3. Government reviews of policing
Sarah’s death led to a major review of the British police and their priorities.
This week on the anniversary of her murder, Priti Patel is expected to announce that tackling violence against women will be a top priority for the police with the offence being treated on par with child abuse, terrorism, and organised crime.
Patel also commissioned a report last year- an inspection into the police’s response to tackling violence and crimes against women and is using the results of this in order to make these changes.
In June 2021, the government published the Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy and Deputy Chief Constable Maggie Blyth was appointed as the new national policing lead to work on improving things within all police forces across England and Wales.
A new government advertising campaign is also set to launch this week, with TV adverts, billboards and social media posts highlighting acts of violence towards women and the simple acts we can all take to challenge perpetrators of abuse.
The police also announced that plain-clothed officers in public would need to video call a uniformed colleague to confirm their identity if they were to stop a lone woman.
However, this new rule suggested by Scotland Yard was criticised by the public. The suggestion that if women do not feel safe after seeing police identification that they should challenge their legitimacy doesn’t matter, as Wayne Couzens was a serving police officer at the time of Sarah’s murder and used his real identification to lure her into his car under a false arrest.
The aftermath of Sarah’s murder is one of the many things that led to the recent resignation of Metropolitan Police Chief Cressida Dick. She was heavily criticised for her response to the situation, including the call to break up vigils for Sarah and arrest attendees, as it broke COVID-19 restrictions.
The Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said he had lost confidence in her and wasn’t satisfied with how she handled things, forcing her to resign. A replacement has yet to be chosen, but the government is looking at the institutional issues within the police to try and make improvements.
4. Couzens was charged and sentenced
Wayne Couzens was charged with Sarah’s kidnapping and murder on the 12th of March. On the 8th of June, he pleaded guilty to kidnap and rape and admitted responsibility for her death and guilty to murder on 9th July.
The sentencing took place on 29th September and on the 30th September Couzens was sentenced to a whole life order, which is rare in the UK.
His sentence was justified by the judge due to the abuse of power he used to falsely arrest Sarah and the seriousness of his crimes.
Evidence presented in court showed that he went to great lengths to organise the kidnapping, cover up the murder, and destroy evidence, as well as the emerging facts about his previous allegations, which had gone unpunished by the police.
While this cannot bring Sarah back, it does at least get justice for her and her family and shows that his crimes were taken seriously.
The life sentence is a big step forwards in terms of punishment of crimes of violence against women, as time and time again victims of abuse and sexual assault have had their attackers either walk away free or with a minimal sentence.
Do women feel safer?
A YouGov poll released in November 2021 found that Sarah’s murder, along with several other high-profile murders of young women had decreased public confidence in the police.
76% of women believed police culture had to change and 47% of women had decreased trust in the police following Everard’s murder. 48% of men were also shown to trust in the police less than before.
Sadly, since Sarah’s murder just a year ago, The Independent reports that almost 125 more women have been killed in the UK.
One of these women was Sabina Nessa, a 28-year old primary school teacher who was taking a 5-minute journey from her house to a local pub and was struck with a weapon by a stranger who then strangled her to death.
Another was Ashling Murphy, a 23-year old Irish primary school teacher who was attacked and killed while out jogging in the afternoon. With cases like this being all too common, it’s no surprise that women continue to report feeling unsafe while being alone in public.
In 2021, there was a rise in spiking of drinks in clubs and bars with many women reporting that they had been spiked via needles while out in public. This was a new phenomenon and The Guardian reported 56 cases of spiking by injection between September and October 2021.
As a result, many boycotted nightclubs, hoping to prompt owners and bouncers to place a higher responsibility on thoroughly searching people before entry. They also wanted bouncers to have more accountability when it comes to women reporting violence or behaviour that has made them uncomfortable while in clubs.
Research from 2021 also reported that 97% of women in the UK have been sexually harassed at least once before. This is a startling number and suggests that the problem is still widespread.
On the one year anniversary of Sarah Everard’s murder, it’s clear that significant societal changes are still needed and that we have every reason to still feel scared and outraged by violence towards women.
Organisations like Sisters Uncut and Reclaim These Streets continue to work towards and campaign for women’s safety and for laws to change, but it’s clear that until they do, it’s sadly right for women to be cautious and take precautions when going out alone.
If you or someone that you know is experiencing domestic violence or you need someone to talk to, you can call the National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247, or the National Stalking Helpline on 0808 802 0300. The Rape Crisis National Helpline is 0808 802 9999, for anyone that needs someone to talk to for confidential emotional support.
Strut Safe is always available to call on 0333 335 0026 from Fridays-Sundays 7pm-3am to help you feel safer while walking home.