Undercover police in bars scorned as 'laughable' plan to keep UK women safe

by Sonia Elks | @SoniaElks | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 16 March 2021 16:52 GMT

Police officers cross Westminster Bridge during a protest, following the kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard, in London, Britain March 15, 2021. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

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British government plans to send plainclothes police into bars and clubs is fuelling debate over women's safety after the murder of Sarah Everard

By Sonia Elks

LONDON, March 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Plans to send plainclothes police into British nightclubs and improve public lighting to increase women's safety in the wake of a high-profile murder case were criticised as "laughable" by policing experts and rights campaigners on Tuesday.

The government announced the measures on Monday as the death of Sarah Everard, 33, and police's handling of a memorial vigil, where they tussled with mourners, fuelled a national debate over women's safety and criticism of police.

Critics said far more wide-ranging action was needed to tackle the root causes of gendered violence across society, and rebuild damaged trust between women and police forces.

"Undercover officers in bars is laughable," said Susannah Fish, the former Chief Constable of Nottinghamshire Police, who described the move as "eye catching PR of no substance".

"Sarah Everard had not been in a bar and was simply walking home – as were thousands of women who have suffered harassment, sexual assault, verbal abuse whilst in public spaces, and will be in the future."

A government spokeswoman said the extra patrols around bars and clubs - dubbed Project Vigilant - would help women feel safe at night, with a successful 2019 pilot by Thames Valley Police in the southern city of Oxford now being rolled out nationwide.

She said Thames Valley force - which is leading on the new national scheme - had stationed officers outside venues to help tackle and deter offending inside.

"We recognise that there is more we need to do to tackle the root causes of gendered violence and to support women," she added in a statement.

The National Police Chiefs' Council said it was working with government to understand the details of the proposals.

Everard, a marketing executive, disappeared while walking home from a friend's house on March 3. Her body was later found in woods about 50 miles away in southeast England.

Serving London police officer Wayne Couzens, 48, has appeared in court charged with her kidnap and murder.

Prime minister Boris Johnson said the new measures to boost police presence in night-time bars and clubs and improve the safety of public spaces with measures such as better lighting and CCTV would "provide greater reassurance" to women.

But they focus on the "symptom" rather than "the cure" to societal norms that normalise men's violence against women, said Deniz Ugur, Deputy Director at the End Violence Against Women Coalition.

"I cannot understand why any woman would trust it," added Nikki, a member of Sisters Uncut, a feminist direct action group which clashed with police at the London vigil, who declined to give her full name due to security concerns.

"It is incredibly concerning that anyone would be putting any extra powers into the police's hands at the moment because it is very evident that they cannot be tasked with keeping women safe and they cannot be trusted."

Women's rights campaigners and experts called for action including mandatory school education on sexual consent, campaigns to target rape myths, more money for women's support organisations and for misogyny to be made a hate crime.

More work is also needed to tackle biased attitudes towards sexual harassment and abuse in some sections of the police, said Loretta Trickett, an Associate Professor at Nottingham Law School, who has worked on issues of misogyny and policing.

"Just providing more street lighting and making sure there's more police officers around nightclubs isn't going to change the culture in wider society and it's not going to change the culture we see in some members of the police force," she said.

Related stories:

Why a murder has sparked such anger in Britain over violence against women

UK lawmakers mull making misogyny a hate crime amid anger over murder

Reclaiming the streets: 6 apps and initiatives keeping women safe

(Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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