Socialist Alternative

Britain’s misogynistic justice system

The outpouring of grief and anger following the murder of Sarah Everard has seen vigils and protests on the streets around the country, with many more people displaying candles at their homes to remember her and other victims of gender-based violence. 

The charging of a serving police officer, Wayne Couzens, in connection with this murder has compounded the anger many feel, as the police are portrayed as a body designed to protect people. The reality is very different, as they stand accused of a complete failure to protect women: two indecent exposure complaints were made against the officer charged with Sarah’s murder on February 28th, but he remained on duty as an armed police officer anyway. Some news sources have even reported that he remained on armed duty after becoming the prime suspect in the murder, putting the public at risk – particularly women.

After the Clapham Common vigil, at which police attacked and arrested mourners and protesters, police officers refused to help a woman who reported to police officers at the scene that a man had exposed himself to her, and even turned on her and accused her of being a “rioter” – a sick echo of their failure to investigate accusations against Wayne Couzens before Sarah’s murder. Disgracefully, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) “investigated” the vigil and found that the police had acted appropriately – their false “independence” showing yet again. Another officer was removed from his duties – but not suspended – after sending a “sick” picture to police colleagues while guarding the site at which Sarah’s body was found. 

Misogyny is an inherent part of the police and justice system, and many individual police officers carry out violent attacks against women both as part of their job but also at home: at least 666 complaints of domestic violence were made against police officers between 2015 and 2018. The super-complaint regarding this, filed by the Centre for Women’s Justice, demonstrated that just 3.9% of domestic abuse allegations against police officers ended in a conviction, compared to the (already dismally low) 6.2% among the general population. Less than 20% of allegations led to any kind of sanction or discipline in the workplace, and less than a third of police forces who responded to an FOI request even had procedures in place for dealing with allegations of domestic violence against officers.

The Metropolitan Police systematically ignores complaints of sexual misconduct made against officers: 594 complaints were made against officers between 2012 and 2018, but only 119 were upheld. Two Met officers were suspended after disgustingly posing with the bodies of Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, two murdered Black women. Other police forces behave similarly: PC Oliver Banfield is currently still working for West Midlands Police, despite pleading guilty to a violent, misogynistic attack on Emma Homer, another woman who was just walking home like Sarah. 

This problem is not confined to the UK: two US studies found that at least 40% of police officers carried out domestic abuse. The notorious “Golden State killer”, Joseph DeAngelo, carried out at least 13 murders and 50 rapes – many while serving as a police officer. 

Police abuse of women is not always violent. The Mitting “Spy Cops” Enquiry heard from many socialist and environmental organisations that were infiltrated by undercover officers, including organisations that Socialist Alternative members were part of. These officers assumed false identities – often using the names of dead children as some kind of sick joke – and used their positions in these organisations to get into relationships with female activists. In some cases these relationships went on for years and the officers fathered children – all under false pretences. This practice was enabled by senior figures in the police force, and was nothing less than state sponsored sexual abuse. 

The recently passed Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS) Bill enshrined this into law, giving undercover police officers blanket immunity from prosecution for any criminal activity undertaken “in the line of duty” – including rape, murder and torture. In light of this, the tone-deaf announcement that plain clothes officers will be in bars and clubs when they reopen is not at all reassuring to many women: any crimes against women they commit could be dismissed under the terms of this Bill. 

Misogyny is also evident in the abject failure of the police and justice system to adequately prosecute in cases of intimate partner violence, stalking and sexual assault. Rape convictions have fallen to a record low in England and Wales. In the year leading up to March 2020, just 1.4% of rape accusations led to a suspect being charged – despite a sharp rise in the number of cases being reported to police. Causes for this include a perceived difficulty in prosecuting rape cases, and the introduction of an arbitrary target of a 60% conviction rate for cases taken to trial.

The Victims’ Commissioner said in response that “what we are witnessing is the de-criminalisation of rape”. The police’s failure to properly deal with allegations of indecent exposure against PC Wayne Couzens may have led to tragic consequences for Sarah Everard – just as they did for Shana Grice, who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend, having previously been fined by police for reporting him as a stalker. The inevitable consequence of this failure is that that women are far less likely to report incidents of rape and sexual assault to the police – particularly given the possibility that they will be forced to testify in court, during which they may be cross-examined and insulted by solicitors, and will be forced to hand their phones and other technology over to police. 

There is also a shocking double standard in the prosecution of women who kill their partners compared to men, with some being convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter rather than murder on the grounds that their partners “nagged” them. Helen Gavin describes this difference in perception between “jealous men but evil women”. Joseph McGrail walked free from court after kicking his partner to death, the judge saying of his victim “this lady would have tried the patience of a saint”. Les Humes stabbed his wife to death in front of their children, and was convicted of manslaughter on the grounds that he “lost control” because she was leaving him. David Hampson beat his wife to death with a hammer, buried her body in the garden and coerced their daughter into lying about her murdered mother’s whereabouts for two years: he was sentenced to six years for manslaughter. Just a few weeks ago, Anthony Williams was convicted of manslaughter after he admitted to “choking the living daylights” out of his wife, Ruth – his excuse was that he “snapped” after just five days of lockdown. Contrast this with the treatment of women like Ellie Wain and Emma-Jayne Magson, both of whom have recently been convicted of murder after stabbing their abusive partners. Ellie was described as a “willing participant” in violence by the judge in her trial, rather than as a victim of male violence.  

Despite all these issues, the policing bill further shows that this rotten Tory government is determined to hand more power to the police. The endemic misogyny and unaccountability in the police and justice system has to change. The Centre for Women’s Justice has proposed some positive steps, however we believe the changes need to go much further. The CWJ argue that the initial reporting route of allegations of domestic violence against police should be the Independent Office of Police Conduct – while this would certainly be an improvement, unfortunately, as we can see from their support for the brutal police violence at the vigil for Sarah Everard, we cannot trust the false “independence” of the IOPC.

All accusations of domestic abuse, sexual misconduct or violence against police officers must be investigated by independent, community-led bodies including trade unions, with Black organisations and women’s organisations specifically represented. This control should extend to hiring and firing powers, to tactics used by officers, and where resources are directed. There should also be specialist training organised throughout the justice system, under the full control of the same organisations and the trade unions, in how to work with victims of gendered and racist violence, and women involved in crime, as well as the election of judges who should be subject to democratic control. Socialist Alternative members recently helped organise a meeting for probation officers through the NAPO trade union, delivered by an author of the “Women Who Kill” report for the Centre for Women’s Justice; this is a small-scale example of what should happen nationally. 

Misogyny and racism is a key part of the function of the police under capitalism: they primarily exist not to protect ordinary people from violence and crime, but to defend the interests of capitalism and the state. As gender-based oppression and racism is inherent to capitalism, the role of the police includes enforcing misogyny and racism. Fundamental changes are clearly needed. All riot police, Special Branch and all undercover units that are used to spy on activist groups should be abolished immediately. We need  democratic, community controlled bodies to protect women and workers. 

To fight for the complete overhaul of the policing and justice system, we need a united movement of the working class to fight for the end of the capitalist system that enables and encourages them, and for a socialist world.