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The police must embed a zero-tolerance policy against sexism and racism within their ranks

Dame Vera Baird at the inaugural Thames Valley Police Violence Against Women and Girls conference, March 2022. Pictured with: ACC Tim de Meyer and DCC Maggie Blyth

In her 2021/22 Annual Report, Dame Vera Baird reflects on the state of policing of violence against women and girls (VAWG).

This article was first featured in Dame Vera Baird’s 2021/22 Annual Report, published on 21 June 2021.

It has been just over a year since a serving police officer kidnapped, raped and murdered Sarah Everard. This grotesque act of premeditated brutality galvanised public opinion like never before and forced policy makers to finally assert ‘enough!’.

But the murder of Sarah Everard didn’t take place in a vacuum. Some 9 months previously, sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry had been killed in an indiscriminate, misogynistic attack. And 6 months after Sarah Everard’s disappearance, another young woman, the teacher Sabina Nessa, was found brutally murdered.

Sarah Everard, Nicole Smallman, Bibaa Henry, Sabina Nessa; a now sadly all-too-familiar rollcall of names. But they are just the tip of the iceberg. And many other women have been killed since.

Domestic Abuse

Women in this country face an ‘epidemic’ of male violence. Not my words, but those of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, echoed by the Home Secretary. Women are subject to terrifying levels of male violence on the streets, at work and during their social lives but, much of the violence they suffer is at the hands of men who are known to them – often family members or intimate partners.

For this kind of violence against women and girls, the passing of the Domestic Abuse Act was a landmark moment. When the Bill finally became law, it was a much-improved piece of legislation than at its introduction and brought with it many reforms that will help victims and save lives.

I worked in coalition with a range of partners to push for a specific offence of non-fatal strangulation. Non-fatal strangulation is often part of a pattern of abuse that is repeatedly used as a tool to exert power and control, and to instil fear. It’s frequently a precursor to even greater violence, even murder. The government was initially hostile to such a move but eventually backed a new specific offence, punishable by up to five years in prison. This will make a huge difference and lives will be saved.

In a further triumph for victims, the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, Nicole Jacobs, and I persuaded the then Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland, to commission a review of sentencing in domestic homicide cases. We are concerned that not only do the sentences received by men who kill their female partners not reflect the seriousness of domestic abuse but women who kill men in response to domestic abuse are sentenced much more harshly. The review is to be undertaken by Claire Wade QC. There could not be a better choice and I am pleased to be consulted by her, alongside many others, as work progresses.

But while legislation may be catching up to the realities on the ground, it is the frontline of the criminal justice system, our police forces, that still require true transformation.

Trust in policing: at record lows

Following the murder of Sarah Everard by a serving police officer, and the disgraceful behaviour of the officers who investigated the murders of Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman – among a litany of recent such scandals – the police have rightly been under intense scrutiny this past year. It is saddening that it took these acts to finally draw government and institutional attention to the prevailing misogynistic and racist attitudes of some police officers.

Unsurprisingly, women simply do not have faith in the police. End Violence Against Women found 47% of women (and 40% of men) had declining trust in the police following the murder of Sarah Everard. 76% of women (and 71% of all adults) think that policing culture has to change in order to better respond to violence against women and girls. Yet, since I have been Commissioner, I have seen report after report, from inspectorates, from academics and from victims organisations highlighting police failures and inaction in tackling violence against women, but little material change.

VAWG: a national policing priority

It’s clear that reports alone won’t transform policing in the way that we need. I have long been calling for government to force the police’s hand and make tackling violence against women and girls a Strategic Policing Requirement (SPR). This would make it a national policing priority, comparable to counter-terrorism, tackling child sexual abuse and serious and organised crime.

A landmark inspectorate of constabulary report, commissioned after the murder of Sarah Everard, also called for VAWG to become a Strategic Policing Requirement. It found “problems, unevenness and inconsistencies” in dealing with the “epidemic” of violence and made clear and strong recommendations. The inspector of constabulary, Zoe Billingham, said it was “vital” violence against women and girls should be within the top three priorities for police forces. And in a tragic demonstration of the urgency of the change required, the report was published the very day Sabina Nessa was killed in a park in South London.

I believe making VAWG a strategic policing requirement could be a game-changing move. I was delighted when in March 2022 the Home Secretary eventually backed my calls and announced that this would happen, clearly signalling the government’s intent to get to grips with this problem. This will reassure both victims and the public that tackling violence against women and girls is an issue of utmost national importance and an urgent policing priority. SPR status means that there may be more central resources allocated and best practice may be spread more quickly and effectively, with the officers working on VAWG having a higher status due to its strategic importance.

We still await a date when this change will happen, and it cannot happen soon enough.

In the same inspectors’ report Zoe Billingham also recommended the appointment of a full-time VAWG National Policing Lead to co-ordinate and improve the national policing response. In meeting this recommendation, DCC Maggie Blyth was appointed to the post. She has reached out to the victims’ sector and I have enjoyed working closely with her as I do with other police leads on these issues.

These actions are welcome. But it is results that we need to see.

Including violence against women in the SPR will accord it the same status as terrorism and knife crime, with similar central direction, leadership and drive, so there can be no longer any doubt as to the obligations police have towards victims.
Dame Vera Baird, in response to the Home Office announcement that VAWG will be added to the Strategic Policing Requirement (SPR), March 2022.

A zero-tolerance approach

Policing culture is now rightly being scrutinised. And it has to change.

It is great that there are more women police officers and more police of various diverse backgrounds. But diversifying the workforce is, by itself, not the answer. As a former senior officer recently said to me, you can join the police from any background and be accepted – so long as you think and behave like a straight, white man. Diverse recruitment alone won’t bring the necessary culture change.

The solution is a zero-tolerance approach to abusive and misogynistic behaviours. No woman will have faith in the police until they root out their own wrongdoers. Furthermore, better vetting processes must check for precisely these attitudes to ensure they can’t enter the force in the first place.

As recently as March, a Freedom of Information request found that 82% of police officers reported for domestic abuse over the last three years kept their jobs. There are few more fundamental breaches of duty as a police officer. When officers are sworn in as constables, they promise to serve the public and do no harm. Yet, there were 1,319 officers accused of domestic abuse by partners. Very few of these were subjected to criminal charges, as other perpetrators would have been. Fewer than 9% were disciplined and only a handful (3%) dismissed. The failure of police to act against other officers in these circumstances is the subject of a current police super-complaint.

When a domestic or sexual abuse allegation is made against an officer, it should immediately be sent to another force to independently investigate. That is the only way to ensure a good investigation, as all the evidence suggests that the accused’s force will not be able to investigate one of its own officers effectively and independently. It remains immensely frustrating that this requires reiterating in 2022. Police leaders simply must set up a national protocol to make inter-force arrangement to deal with this crucially important area.

Time for true leadership

Police have a unique position of power in our society. One of the founding principles of policing is ‘policing by consent’. Officers are instructed: To recognise always that the power of the police to fulfil their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.

Sadly, recent revelations demonstrate that some officers have moved far away from this guiding principle.

If we are to effectively tackle VAWG, then the attitudes and inequalities that underpin it must be dismantled across society. I urge police leaders to view this time as an opportunity to change police culture for the better: to refuse to admit to policing anyone who has a background which links them to these attitudes; to no longer tolerate as ‘banter’ the expression of dangerous misogynistic and racist attitudes; to weed out those officers who hold them; and to encourage others to speak out against them and lead by example.

It’s up to police leaders to show the nation, and especially women, that the police are worthy of their trust. That if a member of the public reports a crime, they will be treated with respect, it will be investigated thoroughly, steps will be taken to protect them from further harm, and the officers who serve them will do this unencumbered by individual or institutional prejudicial views and attitudes. That women and girls will be listened to, respected, crimes investigated, perpetrators pursued and the vulnerable protected from harm. That is policing by consent.

This article was first featured in Dame Vera Baird’s 2021/22 Annual Report, published on 21 June 2021.