The murder of Sarah Everard is causing deep concern for many of my constituents, many of whom are already fearful for their safety.I am particularly concerned that the killer was a serving police officer – and that warning signs were missed. This must never happen again.
I’ve written to Avon & Somerset Police asking what they will do to rebuild trust in the police and ensure that the events in the Metropolitan Police could never happen in our area.
Avon & Somerset Police and Crime Commissioner and Chief Constable
Avon & Somerset Police Headquarters
1 October, 2021
Dear Mark and Sarah,
Re: Violence against women and girls
I am writing to you regarding your strategy to prevent violence against women and girls. I hope you can answer my questions below. Furthermore, please accept this letter as a request for a meeting on this topic.
First, I would like to congratulate you both on your recent appointments and look forward to working together constructively for the safety of the people we all serve.
Over 25 years I have valued working with Avon and Somerset Police in my previous job working on responses to domestic violence locally and nationally. In my current role as Member of Parliament for Bristol West I’ve been pleased we’ve had a constructive and co-operative relationship and I’ve seen good work from local officers.
The circumstances of the murder of Sarah Everard are causing deep concern for lots of my constituents. Many of them, particularly women, are regularly fearful for their safety. The series of incidents and apparent failure in the Metropolitan Police will unfortunately raise doubts and fears in the minds of victims which could lead to an erosion of trust in the very people charged with confronting violence and abuse. I know we share the aim of wanting to do everything we can to give victims confidence in all aspects of law enforcement and I’m here to support this.
I believe this means ensuring the correct checks are in place to prevent officers from abusing their position. This must be part of a public-facing strategy which rebuilds trust in the police. There are four key questions I would like to ask:
- How will you ensure rigorous safeguards are in place to ensure all officers maintain the highest standards? The trial of Sarah Everard’s killer highlighted several points where warning signs were missed. How will Avon & Somerset Police ensure this can never happen in our force area?
- How will you update your strategy for preventing and responding to all forms of violence against women and girls? Furthermore, how will you ensure that it is a priority, and do you plan to revise it in light of recent high-profile murders of women?
- How will you address the full range of crimes that underpin a culture of misogyny and abuse? Misogynistic violence thrives when crimes such as harassment, indecent exposure, threatening behaviour and stalking go unchecked.
- What is your strategy for ensuring women can trust the police? I am interested in understanding how you will use public communication, consultation and engagement. I would also like to understand internal steps you will be taking including training of police officers and staff, and monitoring of progress.
These questions are intended in a spirit of positive cooperation and collaboration. As an expert in domestic violence with more than two decades of experience, I would be happy to discuss your policies and strategy in some detail and provide feedback, if useful.
Moreover, please let me know if I can help by taking up your concerns on laws, national policy or funding which would support your efforts to prevent violence against women and girls. I can raise matters in Parliament or with ministers directly. I would also like to help amplify any communications you are using to assist your work.
Would it be possible to meet you and the officer leading on violence against women and girls?
Please note that as this is a matter of such high concern for many of my constituents, I plan to share this letter and the response publicly.
Thangam Debbonaire, MP for Bristol West
The response from Avon & Somerset Police
Rt. Hon. Thangam Debbonaire MP
Member of Parliament for West Bristol
Shadow Leader of the House of Commons
Thank you for your letter of 1st October. Such is the importance and urgency of the matters you raise, we have also written to all of your parliamentary colleagues who represent constituencies within the Avon and Somerset area, highlighting your questions and our response.
We greatly value the contribution you have made in countering violence against women and girls over the years. As the National Police Chief Council’s lead on Rape and Serious Sexual Offences, it is a subject which is also close to the T/Chief Constable’s heart.
Last week saw the sentencing in the Sarah Everard case. As a service we thought that we couldn’t feel any more devastated or disgusted by the perpetrator’s evil actions, but then we learned that he showed his police warrant card in order to falsely arrest and kidnap Sarah. He utterly betrayed what the rest of us hold dear and rocked the very foundations of policing by consent. The fact that some women will now question their own safety when they encounter a Police Officer is truly troubling.
It is for the police service to act to both improve our own internal culture and our record in investigating and prosecuting offences of violence against women and girls so that we can start to rebuild the trust and confidence of our communities. I welcome the scrutiny and accountability that your office brings and we are eager and pleased to be able to provide responses to your questions.
1. How will you ensure rigorous safeguards are in place to ensure all officers maintain the highest standards? The trial of Sarah Everard’s killer highlighted several points where warning signs were missed. How will Avon & Somerset Police ensure this can never happen in our force area?
While we await the result of this inquiry and the IOPC investigation, our Professional Standards and Vetting departments have implemented a strategy to provide assurance in our processes against known issues raised from the trial and to enable effective risk management.
Our Counter Corruption Strategic Threat Assessment and Control Strategy have prioritised sexual misconduct and Abuse of Position for a Sexual Purpose (APSP) for some years. Our strategy is reviewed on a quarterly basis with Chief Officer oversight. We grew our Counter Corruption Unit in June last year with an uplift of investigators to enable proactive targeting of those assessed to pose risk and to investigate any other concerns that come to light.
We have trained all staff and line managers to recognise the signs of inappropriate sexual behaviour and there are targeted inputs by Professional Standards/ Counter Corruption leaders to new joiners and in leadership training programmes. Earlier this year we mandated APSP training for all staff, we are now auditing attendance.
We publicise misconduct outcomes and sanctions on our website and our intranet as a deterrent and we are one of few forces to maintain misconduct outcomes on the force website after 12 months.
Promotion processes specifically test understanding and look for evidence of role modelling of both the Code of Ethics and the Force Values.
We have long had an anonymous reporting line to enable staff to confidently report inappropriate behaviour by colleagues and this is well used.
Over the last 18 months, the Counter Corruption Unit has also developed partnerships with public and third sector partners, including those who provide support to vulnerable people, to facilitate information sharing and reporting of any concerns about police employees that might come to attention from service users.
A culture of organisational learning is critical and earlier this year we established a new cross-departmental learning forum to identify why issues including these specific issues occur and take action to prevent repetition.
Complaints and recordable conduct matters which constitute a serious sexual offence are referred to the IOPC and live internal investigations are subject to regular reviews to assess and manage risk. All have close Chief Officer oversight, irrespective of whether IOPC investigates or the investigation is conducted locally.
HMICFRS inspects our Counter Corruption response regularly with its findings and recommendations published on its website.
Avon and Somerset Police is pioneering a new transformational approach to the investigation and prosecution of rape, called Project Bluestone. At its core is a focus on perpetrators. We are now in the process of taking the learning from the project and applying it to our counter corruption work on VAWG.
We have also increased resources in our Vetting team, including an additional senior vetting advisor, who came into post last spring. In March this year, the National Police Chief’s Council introduced new Approved Professional Practice (APP) for Police Vetting providing clear standards, including on transferees between police forces. We have adopted the APP.
We have developed tools to give us good visibility of current vetting clearances of our workforce, of officers, staff and contractors. These have been in place since March this year. We have reviewed every role in the force to confirm the level of vetting required and to confirm the current vetting status of each role-holder. Significant work has been and continues to be undertaken to keep pace with vetting renewals. This is an ongoing requirement which receives close scrutiny at a senior level.
Officers and staff subject to misconduct outcomes are always re-vetted and, if the outcome leads to dismissal, the individuals are placed on the College of Policing’s barred list to prevent further employment in the police service.
South West forces are currently working to align vetting processes to improve consistency, capacity and resilience. We are also taking action to further improve our monitoring, governance and scrutiny processes over vetting.
2. How will you update your strategy for preventing and responding to all forms of violence against women and girls? Furthermore, how will you ensure that it is a priority, and do you plan to revise it in light of recent high-profile murders of women?
We have been developing a new VAWG strategy since the summer, aligning it to the work being undertaken nationally on a new NPCC strategy. Chief Constable’s Council approved the national strategy on 29th September, the day of the sentencing hearing in Sarah Everard’s case. The new strategy sets out six pillars of strategic focus with an aim of creating an environment where women and girls feel safe to pursue their lives free of fear and harassment from men, with policing delivering effectively upon our core responsibilities to the public, but also using our influence to support change in our communities and within policing.
We have adopted the national strategy as the framework for our own strategy and for the work we will do in the Avon and Somerset Police force area. Our Deputy Chief Constable, Nikki Watson, is the Senior Responsible Officer for strategy implementation and the T/Chief Constable is its strategic sponsor. The six pillars of the strategy are: Safety in Public, Criminal Justice, Recording of Crimes and Incidents, Our Behaviour, Prevention and Engagement and Monitoring and Scrutiny. Each theme has been assigned a senior lead to set direction and take accountability for delivery. We have also invited in the Women’s Independent Advisory Group as independent voices in the shaping and scrutiny of the strategy and its activity.
The plan which sits under the thematic areas has been designed to evolve to reflect community priorities, emerging events and new information; this very much includes the findings of the inquiries announced this week and any others that might follow but also what is emerging for the public discourse in recent days and likely coming weeks on VAWG in our society and in policing.
3. How will you address the full range of crimes that underpin a culture of misogyny and abuse? Misogynistic violence thrives when crimes such as harassment, indecent exposure, threatening behaviour and stalking go unchecked.
We recognise that misogyny is an issue which is wide reaching and intersects with several associated offences. In recognition of the importance of this issue and the devastating impact it has on women and girls, Avon and Somerset Police was one of the first Police forces in England and Wales to recognise and record gender-based Hate Crime (including misogyny) in 2017, including any crime perceived by the victim (or any other person) as being motivated by hostility or prejudice. This was a pivotal step in recognising the impact of this offending, as well as ensuring victims are provided with the right level of service and support.
The Law Commission recently completed a review of Hate Crime legislation. Although the official recommendations are yet to be released, police forces are likely to be asked to record misogyny as a distinct hate crime. Although we already record misogyny, this change would provide recognition of this hate strand in statute. The subsequent need for a sentence uplift to be available would be crucial in ensuring that misogyny related offences are recognised distinctly for the harm they cause.
Currently, we undertake operational and strategic activity to address misogyny and its concomitant offences:
From an operational perspective, a network of Police Officers has been established. The officers have been trained and mobilised to act as Hate Crime TACs, or Tactical Advocate Champions. They are embedded in teams across the force, with representation in every locality. They are deployed to assist investigating officers with guidance, to contact victims and offer an enhanced service in a timely manner. Their work embraces gender-based hate crime.
We also hold a multi-agency Hate Crime Assurance Panel quarterly to review Hate Crime investigations. The purpose of this panel is to identify good practice, and areas for improvement. This panel focuses on the victim experience from the initial 999/101 call, right through the investigation and the interactions with safeguarding and support services. Owing to the importance of the VAWG movement, the theme most recently reviewed was gender-based hate. Partner agencies provided impartial insight and constructive feedback, which will be used to inform future practices.
We take seriously our role in minimising the impact of hate crimes and incidents and acknowledge the toll of criminal justice processes upon victims. All victims of hate crime are automatically entitled to an enhanced service under the Victims Code of Practice and have a Victim and Witness Care Officer allocated to their case. Victim Witness Care Officers are trained to undertake risk and needs assessments with victims, providing them with support and signposting through the Criminal Justice System. They are also able to organise additional safety measures, including personal attack alarms, safety alarms fitted in the home, and a visit from our ‘Be Home Safe’ carpenter service. This enhanced service also applies to victims of domestic abuse, those who are vulnerable, or persistently targeted. This covers a range of offences associated with misogyny.
We recognise the value of having a robust evidence base and an understanding of what drives hate in all forms. Following the worrying emergence of ‘incel’ (involuntary celibate) groups in Canada and the USA, research and assurance work has been undertaken to detect and understand misogynist extremism of this kind at a local level.
We are working with Bristol Women’s Voice to gain insight and guidance on the needs of women and girls, providing a platform for the voices of local women to shape police policy and practice. We are exploring training options offered by Bristol Women’s Voice, with an aspiration to undertake bespoke misogyny/gender related training with operational officers over the next 12 months.
At the strategic level we are embedding the National Vulnerability Action Plan (NVAP). This holistic approach, recommended by the NPCC and the College of Policing, ensures that the issues and offences which are perennial to misogyny are understood collaboratively. These include (but aren’t limited to) domestic abuse, rape and serious sexual offences, honour-based abuse, sex work and stalking and harassment. Collaborative work is undertaken consistently by leads across the force to share understanding, resources and best practice.
While the future implications of recording misogyny as a distinct category are currently unknown, work will continue in Avon and Somerset to increase awareness and understanding of misogyny as a distinct area, as well as addressing the offences that reinforce it.
4. What is your strategy for ensuring women can trust the police? I am interested in understanding how you will use public communication, consultation and engagement. I would also like to understand internal steps you will be taking including training of police officers and staff and monitoring of progress.
Central to the level of trust women have in the police, is their perception as to how we respond to offences which most affect them, particularly violent and sexual offences. It is well known that convictions for rape and serious sexual offences are at an all-time low. Although the reasons for this are complex, we are determined that we lead the way in improving this situation. We have pioneered Project Bluestone, a transformational approach at dealing with these offences and specifically the perpetrators of them. The project is a collaboration between the police, CPS, victim support agencies and academics. This approach is at the core of the Government’s Operation Soteria commitment, with pathfinders emulating our local approach commencing in four other force areas.
Our communication strategy with the public focusses on our robust, targeted and informed response to perpetrators across all VAWG offences while recognising the importance of meeting the needs of the victim. We’ve demonstrated our commitment to transformative change and innovation by engaging with our Women’s Independent Advisory Group, media and stakeholders about Project Bluestone. We will continue to do so, having courageous conversations within the force but also in the public domain about what drives these offences and how we should be tackling them.
In addition to supporting the Home Office’s national communications campaign focused on raising awareness of violence against women and girls and creating behaviour change, we are addressing myths and misogynistic attitudes through local communications activity. This includes addressing the barriers that may prevent victims coming forward to seek help, whether that’s reporting to us, or contacting a victim support service.
To support our strategy, we have given special access to two documentary programme-makers to improve transparency, invite scrutiny and tell the story of policing. Story Films are documenting how our Professional Standards Department investigates allegations of officer misconduct, while Hardcash are looking at challenges of investigating rape and serious sexual offences. Both will be aired on Channel 4, with the Hardcash documentary being broadcast on November 8th followed by a live debate.
We must also focus on our own internal culture. This is not the time for denial. Although the overwhelming majority of our people are professional, good and disgusted by this terrible crime, the service does have a problem because it is undeniable that Sarah Everard’s murderer worked and moved among us for a number of years. We welcome the intended inquiry. It may make for difficult reading, but it is absolutely necessary to fully understand the issues so they can be dealt with effectively.
If we are to have legitimacy in dealing with this type of behaviour in our communities, we must stamp it out from within. This is not about men versus women; it is about the vast majority standing up to the poor behaviour of a tiny few. We want all staff and officers to feel empowered to call out inappropriate behaviour when they see it and where necessary to report it.
Partnership working at a local, regional and national level is key, as are clear steps and measurable actions for our organisations so transformation can happen internally.
We will shortly be writing to you and other important stakeholders inviting you to attend a summit to discuss the issue of violence against women and girls. It is something we had planned even before the Sarah Everard case, but the need for it is even more urgent. We hope to be able to build a consensus to commit to joint working across public, private and charitable sectors to improve the lived experience of women and girls.
Mark Shelford, Police & Crime Commissioner
Sarah Crew, Temporary Chief Constable