UK's biggest police force in dock over failings to prevent rape-murder of Sarah Everard

The Metropolitan Police issued a lengthy statement vowing changes. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (AFP, REUTERS) - The UK government on Friday (Oct 1) insisted it backed the chief of London's police force even as questions mounted about missed opportunities that could have prevented horrific crimes by a serving officer.

Wayne Couzens, 48, was on Thursday jailed for the rest of his life after falsely arresting Ms Sarah Everard on the pretence she had broken coronavirus restrictions, before raping and murdering her.

The 33-year-old marketing executive's abduction in south London in March triggered nationwide anguish and debate about the safety of women and girls.

The Metropolitan Police, Britain's biggest force, issued a lengthy statement after the rare whole-life sentence was handed down, vowing changes and admitting to possible lapses in how Couzens was vetted.

Policing minister Kit Malthouse conceded that the case had struck a "devastating blow to the confidence that people have in police officers".

But despite the litany of apparent failures, and numerous other scandals that have dogged the London police in recent years, Mr Malthouse said the government still backed Met Commissioner Cressida Dick.

"She is a dedicated and talented and committed police officer who is driving the Metropolitan Police to ever greater standards of care and improvement and fighting crime," he told Sky News.

Nevertheless, the government would "hold the police to account about what went wrong, how this monster slipped through the net to become a police officer, how we can make sure it doesn't happen again".

PM Johnson has confidence in police and chief

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Friday said he had confidence in the police and Commissioner Dick as fury grew over the murder of a woman by a policeman.

"I hope to goodness that it has not shaken public trust in those hundreds of thousands of police officers around the country... who do, overwhelmingly, a fantastic job," Mr Johnson said.

Asked if he was standing by Commissioner Dick, Mr Johnson said: "Yes, absolutely."

"I think it's very important that people should have confidence in policing and what the police do, and I do, let me stress that."

Mr Johnson said there was "disturbing stuff" about allegations of previous misconduct by Couzens that needed investigating, as well as his participation in WhatsApp groups with colleagues which is being probed.

"We also need to get to the bottom of the WhatsApp groups where messages were being exchanged between police officers. I am concerned," he said.

The Met confirmed that it had been investigating an allegation of indecent exposure some 72 hours before Ms Everard was abducted, which had linked Couzens' car to the scene of the incident outside a McDonald's in Kent, south-east England.

Wayne Couzens abused his authority and deceived Ms Sarah Everard into thinking that she was under arrest. PHOTOS: AFP

Assistant Met Commissioner Nick Ephgrave said also that a vetting check was not carried out "correctly" on Couzens when he joined the Met in 2018, linking him to another indecent exposure case in Kent in 2015.

But the Met denied knowing that in his previous job with Britain's civil nuclear police force, Couzens was known to colleagues as "the rapist" because of his hostility to women.

Stop a bus?

The Met's statement took the extraordinary step of advising the public to flag down a bus or, in the last resort, run away from a police officer if they suspect him of behaving unlawfully.

Ms Patsy Stevenson, who was arrested at a vigil for Ms Everard in March, said the police's suggestions were "almost laughable if it wasn't so disgusting".

The Independent Office for Police Conduct watchdog is meanwhile investigating the conduct of five Met officers over allegations they sent discriminatory messages over WhatsApp.

The Times newspaper reported the officers are alleged to have shared misogynistic, racist and homophobic material with Couzens in the months before he killed Ms Everard.

Commissioner Dick on Thursday said Couzens had "brought shame" on the force.

"His actions were a gross betrayal of everything policing stands for," she added, vowing to learn lessons.

Met Commissioner Cressida Dick said Wayne Couzens had "brought shame" on the force. PHOTO: AFP

Prior to being dismissed in July when he pleaded guilty, Couzens served with the Met's elite diplomatic protection unit.

The force has also come under fire for repeatedly referring to Couzens as a "former" officer, overlooking that he was still in service when he brandished his warrant card at Ms Everard and handcuffed her.

'Institutionally misogynistic'

Former Nottinghamshire Police chief constable Sue Fish told Times Radio that British policing was "institutionally misogynistic" across the country.

Ms Parm Sandhu, an ex-chief superintendent in London, decried the Met's "very sexist and misogynistic" culture.

Ms Sandhu told BBC radio that she had been "vilified" after reporting an incident involving a male colleague.

Women officers feared the worst if they reported inappropriate behaviour by their male peers, she said.

They were apprehensive that male officers would "close ranks" and refuse to go to the aid of a policewoman if she were attacked in the line of duty, according to Ms Sandhu.

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The whole-life jail term means Couzens joins 60 other of Britain's most dangerous criminals who will die behind bars.

Ms Everard's family said they were relieved at the severity of the sentence.

"The world is a safer place with him imprisoned," they added.

Many women have shared their own harrowing experiences in dealing with male policemen, and expressed anger at the police for continuing to put the onus on women to protect themselves from officers.

"Telling women to question an officer or shout down a bus is one small step away from blaming a woman for failing to spot danger or get help if and when they get attacked by a police officer," deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner said on Twitter.

"It's simple. Stop expecting bus drivers to police the police and start protecting women."

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