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Will Cressida Dick’s undercover police officers actually protect women?

The Met Police’s plan to protect women from male violence by using undercover officers has been met with mixed reactions from Southwark community groups, with one saying it’s “not the right focus,” while another called for women to be trained in self-defence.

Announced on November 3, the new policy will, among other plans, include pairs of non-uniformed officers outside nightclubs who will alert uniformed officers to instances of predatory behaviour.

Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dick met with women’s groups from Southwark and Lambeth to help formulate the plan, which she hopes will help women and girls “have confidence that their safety is at the heart of how we operate.”

Police Comissioner Cressida Dick

However, one of the Southwark-based groups involved in the meeting, Solace Women’s Aid, felt the announcement did not deal with the problem within the police.

“We urgently need a recognition from the Met Police that there is institutional misogyny and racism and how the current culture will be addressed,” said Rebecca Goshawk, Deputy Director of Business Development with Solace Women’s Aid.

“At a time when trust in the police is so low, putting plain clothes officers outside nightclubs is not the right focus. What we need the Met to be focusing on is systematic change which tackles perpetrators of violence and abuse in their own ranks and rebuilding trust with women.”

The issue of public trust in the police emerged as key to the discussion. In the widely-publicised trial of former policeman Wayne Couzens for the murder of Sarah Everard, it was revealed that Couzens had used his position as a police officer to gain Sarah’s trust.

Part of Cressida Dick’s new scheme involves officers identifying themselves by video calling a uniformed supervisor in a police operations room.

Deputy Assistant Commissioner Laurence Taylor, with Frontline Policing, said: “We hope that being able to see and speak to a uniformed colleague in what will very visibly be a police operations room, and know that there is a proper police record of the encounter, will provide the reassurance that we understand is necessary.”

Mark Webb, chair of Southwark Neighbourhood Watch Association, agreed with Rebecca that the introduction of non-uniformed officers would do little to tackle the issue of male violence against women.

“Clearly Cressida hasn’t been to a busy club, with hundreds of people as potential victims and potential attackers all in the same place at the same time, with the lights flashing, music pounding, drinks flowing,” he said. “It would be like trying to find one particular needle in a stack of needles. No pun intended.”

However, while Rebecca felt that the responsibility lay with the police to regain the public’s trust to fight violence, Mark argued that the best response was to train women in self-defence.

“In every society and in every community there are good people and there are bad people. Hence we will always have a percentage of the Police Service that’s going to be bigoted, violent and abusive.

“I suggest we start teaching girls in schools at an early age about the real world, teach them self-defence and personal safety, and give free classes with child care facilities for women in self-defence.

“Even suggesting this approach leads to fierce backlash on social media from some women saying that men have to change.

“I understand and acknowledge that. However that’s a long term social change and something that doesn’t provide an answer to the current problem.

“Women who do undertake self-defence and personal safety training generally say that it’s empowering and a huge aid to self confidence. Empowered, confident and trained people are far less likely to be victims of violent crime.”

He added that men should be given a life sentence for rape.

Southwark Council’s cabinet member for health and wellbeing, Evelyn Akoto, felt that the focus should be on men’s behaviour.

“This is less about women being subjected to further surveillance themselves,” she said, “and much more about ensuring that men understand what constitutes unacceptable or even criminal behaviour, so that women are safe and reassured.

Cllr Evelyn Akoto argued the focus should be on men’s behaviour

“Men who commit these actions will need to take full responsibility and will be held to account.

“We see our partnership work with the police as ensuring that men are challenged on inappropriate, aggressive or unwanted behaviour towards women. Women should never feel unsafe as they go about their lives, it’s not acceptable for women to be made to feel awkward, intimidated, embarrassed, frightened or threatened by other people’s behaviour.”

The council’s women’s safety survey, conducted between May and June this year in order to research local opinion following the murder of Sarah Everard, received 568 responses. 52 per cent of respondents felt ‘unsafe’, and 92 per cent cited their gender as a reason to feel unsafe – particularly when travelling through transport hubs and at night.

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