The Met explains what to do if you're stopped by a lone plain clothes officer

·6-min read
Photo credit: Polly Thomas - Getty Images
Photo credit: Polly Thomas - Getty Images

This week, we've been shocked and sickened by the news that Sarah Everard was assaulted then murdered after being falsely 'arrested' and handcuffed by then-Metropolitan Police officer Wayne Couzens.

In a sentencing trial which saw Couzens jailed until he dies for his horrific crimes, we learned that on the night he saw Sarah, just trying to walk home, Couzens produced his police warrant card and said that he was arresting her for breaking Covid rules, before ushering her into his car.

Tragically, we know that next, Sarah was assaulted and killed by the police officer.

Many of us this week are remembering Sarah for all the amazing things she was, as shared by those who knew her, but we're also left with burning questions. What happens, right now, to stop this kind of violence from happening? And until the day comes, hopefully, when women and people of other marginalised genders can walk home free from fear, what can we do if we find ourselves stopped by police?

What happened to Sarah is very rare, in terms of both the circumstance she found herself in on the street with Wayne Couzens, and the murder he went on to commit. In the past decade, 2,075 women have been killed in England and Wales, and in most of these cases, the killer was known to the victim. Only 13% of those killings were committed by strangers.

The Met Police has issued a statement on its website saying it's "unusual for a single plain clothes police officer to engage with anyone in London."

But in spite of that, it's totally understandable to feel distrust of the police and to think about what you would do if you found yourself stopped by an officer, particularly one out of uniform.

The Met says it hears these "legitimate concerns" and has issued advice to women who might be worried currently.

"It is unusual for a single plain clothes police officer to engage with anyone in London. If that does happen, and it may do for various reasons, in instances where the officer is seeking to arrest you, you should then expect to see other officers arrive shortly afterwards," The Met says.

"However, if that doesn’t happen and you do find yourself in an interaction with a sole police officer and you are on your own, it is entirely reasonable for you to seek further reassurance of that officer’s identity and intentions."

The force advises you should then ask "searching questions" of the person in front of you, including:

  • Where are your colleagues?

  • Where have you come from?

  • Why are you here?

  • Exactly why are you stopping or talking to me?

The Met then adds that you should try to seek verification of the person's identity.

"Try to seek some independent verification of what they say, if they have a radio ask to hear the voice of the operator, even ask to speak through the radio to the operator to say who you are and for them to verify you are with a genuine officer, acting legitimately," The Met advises.

"All officers will, of course, know about this case and will be expecting in an interaction like that - rare as it may be - that members of the public may be understandably concerned and more distrusting than they previously would have been, and should and will expect to be asked more questions.

"If after all of that you feel in real and imminent danger and you do not believe the officer is who they say they are, for whatever reason, then you must seek assistance - shouting out to a passer-by, running into a house, knocking on a door, waving a bus down or if you are in the position to do so calling 999," the advice concludes.

Photo credit: Leon Neal - Getty Images
Photo credit: Leon Neal - Getty Images

The Met's Deputy Commissioner Sir Stephen House, has acknowledged a warrant card may not be enough to convince members of the public that the person holding it is legitimate, and he suggested the public could phone a police control room to check the number and confirm the officer is genuine.

"We are instructing our officers, the policy going forward will be that they must facilitate a greater trust," he said.

"If that is, if necessary, by allowing phone calls to be made to our control room, so that the officer can show the warrant card and the person in the control room can say 'yes, Steve House is a police officer and his warrant number - which will be on the warrant card - is as follows'.

"That should be enough to confirm identity, we believe. We know we have to go further to achieve trust and to prove identity of plain-clothes officers. And we are prepared and keen to do that."

While the advice is, granted, clear and actionable, it's received criticism from people who claim that issuing this guidance isn't enough, because of the context this is all set against. As has been made abundantly clear in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by ex-police officer Derek Chauvin, police brutality exists. And it disproportionately affects marginalised groups including Black people.

As the journalist Robyn Vinter said on Twitter:

"I think we've got to be honest here - it's not safe for working class women to question police or resist arrest. It's infuriating to hear them advise us to 'shout to a passerby or run into a house', as if you wouldn't find yourself with additional charges

"If you've ever seen someone run from police, you'll have noticed that the response is often aggression because their adrenaline starts pumping and, for some of them, it's an excuse to take out their frustrations on someone. At the end of the day, you're going to get hurt

"And this is before we even get started on how many women can outrun a man who could easily be a foot taller. If you're not much of a runner or you're disabled or elderly, what are you supposed to do?"

Photo credit: Leon Neal - Getty Images
Photo credit: Leon Neal - Getty Images

It's important to remember that when we're talking about ending violence against women and girls, the responsibility should not be placed on us to keep ourselves safe, it should be with boys and men, who need to think about and moderate their own behaviours.

But even so, many of us do still risk assess constantly, thinking about our safest paths, our escape routes, our emergency actions, and while it shouldn't be this way, it's a means to protecting ourselves.

So, perhaps this Met-issued advice will be welcomed by some, while we continue to raise our voices and ask, when will enough be enough? When will this stop being a problem we have to discuss?

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