October 4, 2021
Having spent nearly 40 years of my life in policing, a lot of it as a Metropolitan Police detective, during which time I investigated, among other high-profile cases, the disappearance and assumed murder of the estate agent Suzy Lamplugh, the initial reports of the disappearance of Sarah Everard from a South London street raised alarm bells.
Her burned remains were found inside a rubble bag, dumped in a pond in a wooded area of Kent on March 10 last year – a week after Everard, 33, vanished while walking home from a friend’s house. Wayne Couzens was arrested on March 9 on suspicion of her kidnapping and we were soon to learn that the circumstances of her murder were quite appalling.
Couzens, 48, a serving police officer, had used his warrant card and handcuffs as part of a ruse to abduct his unwitting victim and subject her to her awful fate. I’ve studied offender-profiling and the behaviour of predatory males, and the deceitful tactic he used to trick her into getting into his car reminded me of that used by a number of notorious serial killers. Unsuspecting women and children have been subjected to some truly wicked tricks to lure them into the vehicle of deviant monsters.
When I read of Couzens’ other behaviours, in particular, indecent exposure, combined with the callous and partially planned nature of Everard’s murder, it leads me to think Couzens was only just beginning his career as a rapist-abductor-serial killer. He likely would have committed other such heinous crimes, had he not been caught.
The investigation of the murder and the facts we are now finding out about the murderer leave me both reassured about one aspect of policing and appalled at just how far standards, basic investigative processes and coppers’ inquisitiveness has slipped. I am also disquieted that some of Couzens’ colleagues appear not to have sensed the nature of this awful man and acted on their instincts.
No investigative tool went unused. Couzens’ mobile phone usage – as well as Everard’s – was analysed in double-quick time. Research into who Couzens was and where he lived were fast-tracked. Meanwhile, everything that could be discovered from his police computer was done with the utmost urgency.
Once Couzens had been arrested, officers immediately conducted an interview at his home address to try to determine where Everard was. Meanwhile, police dogs, search teams and divers were deployed. They speedily uncovered her remains and even recovered her mobile phone, which had been dumped by Couzens in a nearby stream.
As a former police officer myself, I can tell you it would have been difficult for many of those involved in the investigation to control their rage about what Couzens had done, not only to Sarah Everard, but to the reputation of the job so many of them love and care passionately about. Those officers and the wider police service are utterly appalled at what a serving policeman did to that poor young woman.
After a lifetime spent protecting the weak and the vulnerable, I would have no hesitation in acting as the hangman for Couzens, were capital punishment still on Britain’s statute books. I am in no doubt that many of my former colleagues feel the same – indeed, some have already told me they do.
The investigation, the gathering of evidence and its presentation at court showed the Metropolitan Police at its finest. I am proud of and reassured by what those officers did for Sarah Everard and her parents.
However, I am very far from reassured to learn that Couzens had allegedly been involved in three incidents of indecent exposure, one in Kent in 2015 and two in London in February this year. More worrying, the level of investigation and the fact that Couzens was working as a police officer with these incidents in his recent past lead me to think there is a systemic failure here. Why was he not identified as a police officer and dealt with speedily?
Why ‘flashing’ is always a warning sign
Sadly, however, I believe this kind of failure could happen in virtually every force in the country. Things have changed as part of the government’s ongoing ‘police reform’ plans over the past 10 years, but not for the better. The quality of low-level-crime investigation, for instance, has got worse, much worse – if indeed there is any investigation done at all, in many cases.
To me, on a personal level, that’s disappointing. I’m less concerned to hear that Couzens was part of a WhatsApp group with other officers where it’s alleged “misogynistic” and sexist messages were shared. It’s unsavoury, childish and offensive, but, terrible though it is, men will be men. Whether it’s policemen, journalists, rugby and football supporters, soldiers, lawyers or even government ministers, you will find this demeaning attitude to women everywhere.
Yes, it’s an awful thought for women that male police officers can act just like other men, but sexism is a problem that needs urgently to be solved by society as a whole. I don’t know how to change the way men think, but I do know that women suffer the outcome of the ignorant, misogynistic and sometimes predatory behaviour of some of us men.
That’s of no comfort to women, or those of us who have daughters, but it’s for too long been the way of the world. Unfortunately, many men still carry the mentality of testosterone-filled youths into their everyday adult lives. That’s why Couzens’ alleged indecent-exposure incidents are my concern here. As a junior constable, I learnt the definition of ‘indecent exposure’ and the nature of ‘flashing’. We considered it relatively trivial, albeit disturbing for the victim – an offence about which we could do little. As a man, I don’t think I can understand the impact on a woman of being ‘flashed’ at and I suspect that lack of understanding has impacted on the quality of many investigations of ‘flashing’ that have been undertaken by male officers.
Later, when I trained as a detective in the Met, I learnt that this was, in fact, a potential indicator of far worse predatory behaviour. As my experience of and knowledge about sexually motivated murders grew, it became clear to me that, in nearly all cases, the offender had been a ‘flasher’ in the past. I learnt never to treat an indecent-exposure offence lightly, and always instructed staff to pursue every avenue to find the offender, because I knew he might well go on to commit far worse crimes.
If I’m honest, in the past, I didn’t really think too much about many aspects of victim care, but the police can and should always do better. It can be emotionally gruelling to be immersed in so many cases, and retaining a clinical and forensic approach to an investigation is a coping mechanism for dealing with some of the horrendous things you see as a police officer.
Who’s to blame for poor policing?
The Couzens case tells me what I already knew: that all is not well in policing. The investigations carried out in relation to his ‘flashing’ were both poor and tardy. Had they been conducted promptly and properly, they might have led to his being prosecuted and sacked. It probably wouldn’t have stopped him developing into the predator he is, but his dismissal from the police might have neutered his ability to trick future victims, or he might have been arrested after the fact even sooner.
So, how do we fix this? The answer is it will be hard. Training, especially for lower-level investigations such as ‘flashing’, has fallen off significantly. Meanwhile, experience levels among both uniformed police and detectives have dropped off as officers leave the service early or decline to become detectives. Of no less concern, the tendency to fast-track people into leadership positions for diversity reasons or because they have a degree has led to leaders and supervisors tasked with monitoring investigations and developing teams having insufficient experience or knowledge to do so. Thus it is that some sergeants, inspectors and even superintendents know little more or even less about practical crime investigation than their relatively inexperienced staff.
How many of those senior officers parachuted into their roles will therefore know about offender-profiling, or how ‘flashing’ can be an important indicator of much worse to come? And whose fault is that? It’s certainly not Commissioner Cressida Dick’s. She can only work with the people and the funds she’s got, and must follow government policy on training, recruiting and investigation standards.
If I wanted to lay the blame for the poor state of low-level investigations anywhere, I would first need to identify the person who had cut the funding for training centres and their courses. Or who’d made the pay, conditions and risk of blame so unfavourable that few want to become junior detectives. It was they who’d insisted the police needed new ways of thinking and that inexperienced people should be fast-tracked into senior positions. They who’d pressurised the organisation to take on more women, visible ethnic minorities, and gay people in the senior ranks, with all the unintended consequences such pressure produces.
And who was the person responsible for this debacle? That well-known advocate of police reform, Theresa May, ably assisted by her political advisers.
The government doesn’t tell doctors how to train new recruits to the medical profession or how to operate on a transplant patient, so why does it do exactly the equivalent to a complex task like policing?
The Sarah Everard tragedy tells us two things. The first is that our murder investigation teams are made up of exceptional people who generally do an outstanding job of solving crimes and securing justice for the families of victims. The second is that, rather than dismissing all police officers as uncaring misogynists or telling women to be cautious about speaking to plain-clothes detectives, we should be doing whatever we can to salvage what’s left of the experience and investigative capability to be found among our constables and sergeants so we can build on that.
Then, perhaps, when a woman is the victim of indecent exposure, we might expect a far better standard of investigation of the offence. And maybe we might also catch a budding predator early on in his journey of sexual offending and actually do something meaningful to make women safer on our streets. The great pity is that many of my former colleagues think it’s already almost too late.
Boris Johnson’s 20,000 new but wholly inexperienced police officers aren’t going to stop another monster like Couzens. But shrewd, experienced, well-resourced investigators just might.