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Sarah Everard, the police and the public

Indigo Jo Blogs - 3 October, 2021 - 19:55
A white woman wearing a blue face mask laying flowers at the base of a tree where a number of other flowers have been left. A banner attached to he tree reads "Reclaim these streets" and other banners can be seen on the wall behind, including one saying "Rest in love Sarah; you deserved to make it home safe". Another white woman, wearing a pink mask, if standing in front of the wall.A woman laying flowers at a vigil for Sarah Everard in Sheffield.

Last week, a former Metropolitan (i.e. London) Police officer named Wayne Couzens was sentenced to life imprisonment for the rape and murder of Sarah Everard, a woman he falsely arrested on Covid rules violation charges and then abducted, raped and murdered last March towards the end of the most recent lockdown. He was given a whole-life tariff, i.e. life without parole, because of the particularly aggravating matter of having abused his policing powers to abduct someone for personal gratification and because the action struck at the heart of policing by public consent and the rule of law. Over the last week or so, there has been talk of women feeling increasingly unsafe as it has become obvious that the police as well as random men are a threat to their safety, especially at night, and of them giving their daughters a similar talk to those that Black and other non-white parents give their children, especially their sons, on how to deal with the police. The way Couzens was able to gain sensitive roles and move from one constabulary to another despite numerous accusations of sexual misconduct (in a previous job, not with the Met, he was known as “the rapist”) and had not been suspended recently despite being accused of exposing himself in a MacDonalds has shed a light on how the Met fails to deal with predators in its ranks. Cressida Dick, the Met police commissioner who has weathered a number of other scandals and recently had her contract extended by two years, gave a statement the night of Couzens’s conviction which seemed to me to be devoid of any emotion and has refused to resign and is being supported in this by both the prime minister and the current leader of the Labour opposition, Keir Starmer.

On social media the afternoon following his conviction, I read suggestions that he must not have been acting alone and that this was probably not his first murder. I’m not convinced by this. Couzens used a hire car which could be easily traced to him, and abducted a woman from a main road in Clapham; main roads in London are very well covered by CCTV and buses all have forward-facing cameras to record vehicles in bus lanes that should not be there. I can think of three possibilities: first, he was counting on the support of other officers; second, that he just thought he was cleverer than he really was, and third, that this had been something he had been wanting to do for some time and avoiding getting caught was less important than actually fulfilling his aim. He made serious attempts to harm himself while in custody following his arrest, so it is possible that he intended to kill himself if caught and might make further attempts in prison.

Police chiefs have made suggestions as to how the public can protect themselves from false arrests, such as trying to flag down a passing bus or running to someone’s house, all of which have been roundly ridiculed as buses will simply not stop away from official bus stops and you cannot guarantee that the particular house you run to will be occupied or that the occupier will open the front door. Others have suggested that women should be more ‘streetwise’ and read up on their rights. What is needed is for the rules of how a police officer can or will arrest a member of the public to be clarified and, if necessary, changed. After all, the idea of abducting someone by using a false arrest is a genie that is now out of the bottle and the next person who tries this might be cleverer and less cocky than Wayne Couzens; the danger could come from a real police officer or an impersonator. The first change should be that nobody should be required to get into a car other than an identifiable police car or van, and I do not include cars with blue lights but no livery. The second is that off-duty police officers should not carry their warrant cards but be issued with an ID card that identifies them to other officers, allowing them to assist in the event of an incident, but should not confer powers of arrest, or at least powers to transport the arrested person anywhere. Police do not normally use such vehicles to transport arrested people; this norm must be made into well-known standard practice; the “don’t normallys” must become “nevers” and “can’ts”. This way, anybody witnessing an incident like this in future is under no illusions that this is a false arrest and are less likely to walk on by.

That Couzens could do this so easily, and also the reason why he received such a stiff penalty, was because he picked on an ideal victim: a white, middle-class woman who had no reason to fear the police and meekly complied with the arrest, even offering her other hand when he handcuffed her. Even if people familiar with police abuses who crowd around and record arrests or stops and searches they perceive as harassment had happened by, they would probably have thought nothing was amiss here. There is a danger of people becoming more concerned about police abducting and murdering white women, which has happened (as far as I’m aware) precisely once in recent years than about racially-targeted, sometimes violent, police harassment which targets children as well as adults and happens a lot. When Black families give their children “the talk”, the idea is to make it clear that they should not challgenge the officer even if he is aggressive or obviously prejudiced, as this will be used as an excuse to become more aggressive and violent and could result in them being arrested or killed; it was precisely this trust of and submission to authority that Couzens exploited.

A large collection of flowers under a bandstand on Clapham Common. A banner among them reads, in pink on a black background, "On the way home I want to feel free, not brave".Flowers left for Sarah Everard at Clapham Common in March 2021

It is disappointing, but not altogether surprising, that Keir Starmer has thrown his weight behind Cressida Dick. He is preoccupied with the need to appeal to the “Red Wall”, the group of former ‘safe’ Labour seats in the provincial North that switched to the Tories at the last election, where voters are presumed to be pro-establishment, patriotic, ‘true’ (read white) working-class people who trust the police. This presumption is misplaced: working-class people experienced police violence on many occasions during the 1980s, notably during the miners’ and steelworkers’ strikes, as well as the calumnies of the police (echoed by the tabloid press and by politicians) against the Liverpool fans who were killed or injured at Hillsborough. There is a sense that distrust of the police is confined to troublemakers and wrongdoers as well as minorities and some “metropolitan liberals” and that ‘normal’ (white, provincial) people regard the police as friendly to them and believe politicians’ and police chiefs’ claims that the corrupt or depraved police are a small minority of “bad apples”.

It is important that we keep the focus on the police culture that has allowed countless predators, domestic abusers and other criminals to maintain careers in the police force, allowing them power over ordinary people. Of course, such people exist in wider society, but this must not be a distraction: the police are there to maintain the law, order and decency. They must not be “no better than the rest of us” and certainly must not be allowed to cover up for those who abuse their position or less experienced officers or their families or ordinary people. We have seen too many situations where the police abused or injured people with impunity; the killing of Ian Tomlinson, who was hit over the head unprovoked by an officer with anger management issues that were known to his colleagues, in 2009 was a classic example (he was acquitted of even manslaughter, but dismissed from the force for gross misconduct and the force acknowledged that his actions had caused Tomlinson’s death). Couzens did not get away with it largely because there was no way of portraying his victim as being in any way blameworthy, nor his actions as an operational mistake, and would have done if either of these arguments could have been made. We must not allow the same excuses to be made for those who aided and abetted him along the way. There must be action now, and change now.

Image sources: Tim Dennell, via Wikimedia, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution License v2.0 (CC BY 2.0), and Rosianna Rojas, via Twitter.

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Time for legislation on disability and late abortion

Indigo Jo Blogs - 26 September, 2021 - 18:41
Picture of Heidi Crowter, a white woman with Down's syndrome wearing glasses with thick black rims and a pink raincoat and a black top with different coloured flowers on underneath it. A car, a tree and a stone building are behind her, but are blurred.Heidi Crowter

Last week the High Court in London rejected a suit from a woman with Down’s syndrome, Heidi Crowter (right), to overturn an aspect of the abortion law in the UK which allows a baby to be terminated after the usual 24-week limit if they have a disability, including Down’s syndrome. The judges refused the attempt to overturn this law on the grounds that they could not enter into controversies but could only decide in accordance with the law. Unlike in the US where a law can be overturned on constitutional grounds, in the UK judges can only rule according to the law; while a law can be found to be incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights or with other international agreements, the law cannot be struck down but it falls to Parliament to amend or revoke it. The case was supported by a number of disability activists, particularly those associated with learning disabilities or other congenital disabilities which are often the reason for termination, such as spina bifida; some feminists agreed with the ruling, with some even claiming that ‘equality’ should be achieved by abolishing time limits altogether.

When the law on abortion was passed, it was remarked that the wording that allowed a foetus with a severe abnormality to be aborted later than the original 28-week limit (subsequently reduced to 24 weeks) was so vague that it could result in someone being aborted for something as trivial as a club foot. Indeed, there was litigation more recently after it was discovered that an abortion was carried out on a foetus at 28 weeks because they had a cleft palate, something that can be rectified with surgery. Some would agree that not defining a severe abnormality is quite correct as the law cannot predict specific situations and the majority of later abortions are on the grounds of very severe, unsurvivable defects and the children involved were often very much wanted and the decision heartbreaking. However, it does seem clear that pregnancies are being aborted because the child will have a perfectly liveable albeit potentially challenging impairment, and although most of these are prior to the 24-week limit (Down’s syndrome is detected at a 12-week scan and spina bifida at 20 weeks, for example), parents have reported that doctors put pressure on them to have an abortion, mentioning it as soon as the diagnosis is made and then on many subsequent occasions.

A friend, a disability activist whose account is private so I will not name her, noted in a long Twitter thread on Thursday that much of the reason for the high abortion rate of people with liveable impairments is that doctors bully and coerce parents into terminations, telling them that it would be in the child’s own best interests to terminate on the grounds that they might never walk or talk or will probably be incontinent, as if these things alone mean they would be better off dead, and that parents were vulnerable to this kind of manipulation because they had often never actually known a single disabled person (this likelihood is increased if most babies with a detectable condition are aborted). She also mentioned that a friend in the US had been told by her obstetrician that he would cease treating her if she did not terminate, and kept his promise. While unconvinced by the case for a ban, she suggested that it be made illegal for doctors to use coercion or misinformation to pressure parents expecting a disabled child to have an abortion. The activist and Instagrammer Nina Tame, interviewed on Woman’s Hour yesterday (Friday), noted that she had been reminded again and again after the son she was carrying was diagnosed with spina bifida (which she also has) that she could terminate, and said that the time limit for abortion in the case of spina bifida should be the same as for other pregnancies.

The ruling has also allowed a number of fringe feminists to push demands for the removal of time limits for all abortions, with one spouting the ridiculous slogan “any woman, any reason, any time”. Does it even need to be explained why there are time limits? It is because in the last few weeks of any pregnancy, a baby is definitely a baby and there is no doubt that this is a human life and a child who can feel, can hear even if not understand, and can learn. At that stage, a pregnancy can be ended, if need be, without the loss of the baby’s life; as most of the pregnancy has already happened and birth by that stage unavoidable, the usual argument that abortion saves a woman who never wanted to be pregnant these difficulties does not apply. There simply is no excuse and no reason to permit a destructive abortion of a baby without a fatal abnormality late in pregnancy; there is no difference between this and killing a child after birth because a child just before and just after birth are the same thing; it is not a metamorphosis. The same clown then explains that:

Having a Disabled baby may change the dynamic for the entire family. There may be appointments, play dates, groups, or routines that are essential for that child. This can mean it’s difficult to juggle the needs of other children, too. A woman must choose if she is prepared to invest 18+ years in raising a child. A partner, or social structure, can provide an environment that supports her choice, but only the woman can decide if she can spend her limited maternal energy on this child, at this time.

So: it’s OK to snuff out a child’s life after it’s indisputably a child and not a mere bundle of cells to save the mother’s “maternal energy” — a bit of pseudo-mystical woo-woo that conveniently ignores the fact that a lot of children, disabled or otherwise, are raised by two parents and not just one — and to avoid inconvenience to other children. This is their brother or sister we are talking about.

The argument for permissiveness here typically involves reference to emotive cases of much-wanted pregnancies being aborted because of a genuine fatal foetal abnormality (such as in this article by Zoe Williams in the Guardian), yet this was not what the case was about; it was about the principle that any disability, including perfectly liveable ones, should be grounds for termination well after the normal time limit, which exists because it is roughly the border between an early foetus and a child who could survive out of the womb, lapses. This principle is, in my view and that of many disabled people, of a piece with the tendency towards leniency for adults who kill their disabled children when they are months or years old (the Tanya Clarence case is a recent example) and the sympathy shown when they kill themselves afterwards.

Nobody is suggesting that a woman be forced through an entire unwanted pregnancy for the principle of equality for disabled people. What is demanded is that, if it cannot be secured in the court, that the law be changed so that no child is aborted after the point of viability because of liveable impairments or defects that can be corrected with surgery. While these are not the majority of late terminations for medical reasons, they happen and they should not. Not all the parents involved will be poor, disabled or single mothers; some will be stable couples who have been told only bad things about what their child’s life may involve by doctors who regard the choice to abort as a no-brainer. While doctors must be required to present a true picture of life with the impairment in question to parents and not regale them with horror stories in order to push them towards termination, and this applies before and after 24 weeks, no child should be aborted late because they might be more costly to bring up or less of a social asset than an able-bodied child might be. And yes, it’s hard for the parents. But sometimes, doing the right thing is hard.

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