Scrutiny of the Metropolitan Police and women’s fight to #ReclaimTheseStreets

Sienna Rodgers
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The Metropolitan Police is facing an investigation that will look into whether it “responded appropriately” to a claim of indecent exposure against the police officer suspected of murdering Sarah Everard. The alleged incident took place in south London four days before her disappearance. As women and girls share our stories of being sexually harassed and our experiences of being assaulted, these reports underscore a basic truth that too often goes unrecognised: there is a spectrum of male violence. Street harassment and indecent exposure (‘wolf-whistling’ and ‘flashing’) may not seem connected to abduction or murder, but these things are linked.

Anyone serious about confronting male violence against women cannot ignore the fact that a serving police officer has been arrested in this case. It is quite right to say that we need to recognise the scale of violence against women and girls, we must tackle it at root and men should speak out, as Keir Starmer told Labour’s campaign launch yesterday when asked about Sarah Everard. But to talk about needing “more police officers on the beat” is a retreat into a politician’s comfort zone that sits very uneasily with me, particularly right now.

We know that Metropolitan Police officers were arrested last year after allegedly taking selfies next to the bodies of murdered sister Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, two of the 118 women who were killed by men in the UK over the last year. These photos were allegedly shared on WhatsApp, and other officers were placed under investigation after allegedly receiving or being aware of the photos. A Metropolitan Police unit is also involved in the ‘spycops’ scandal, which saw women deceived into intimate relationships over many years.

It is worth noting today that the Metropolitan Police wants to shut down Reclaim These Streets, a socially-distanced vigil planned for Saturday evening, and is even threatening to fine the women who’ve organised it. Police say the gathering would be unlawful under Covid rules. Lawyers such as Adam Wagner and MPs including Harriet Harman disagree with that assessment of the coronavirus laws because parliament has not specifically banned protest. This is particularly alarming in light of the suspect in Sarah Everard’s case. After raising funds very quickly, organisers are seeking an urgent order from the High Court to allow the vigil to go ahead.

Rape in England and Wales is effectively being decriminalised. A Crown Prosecution Service report released in 2019 showed that rape prosecutions were at their lowest level level in a decade. The CPS denied changing its policy, but there are concerns that it has prioritised improvements in conviction rates, moving “away from the merits-based approach towards a ‘bookmaker’s approach’”. As Labour leader, Starmer often refers to being a former director of public prosecutions: his view on these issues, as well as a deeper reflection on the relationship between women and the police, would be welcome.

This week has been utterly exhausting for women. It was especially good to see anti-racism campaigners in Labour receive some positive internal party news yesterday. The national executive committee (NEC) has agreed to introduce new codes of conduct and new training courses on both Islamophobia and anti-Black racism, and progress has been made on setting up a new structure for Black, Asian and minority ethnic members. We have details on these developments here.

Despite the above, the ruling body’s long meeting was not a pleasant one. Discussion got so heated that chair Margaret Beckett was heard referring to ex-MP Laura Pidcock as a “silly cow”. Beckett has told LabourList that she has written to Pidcock, left a phone message, apologised for her use of the phrase and withdrawn it. “It is a phrase I should not have used, and I do not attempt to justify it. I should not have said it, even to myself.” A number of NEC members have called for her resignation, however. One NEC source said general secretary David Evans confirmed it was a breach of NEC conduct and will be looking into it. As another NEC member put it to me last night, the ruling committee is “completely toxic at the moment”.

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