On the day Sarah Everard’s killer admitted to her kidnap, rape and murder, the Metropolitan police commissioner, Cressida Dick, was speaking about violence against women and girls. “On occasion,” she admitted of her force, “I have a bad ’un.” This was, perhaps, an attempt to reassure the public that Wayne Couzens, who killed Everard while serving as a Met police officer, was an anomaly.
Sue Fish is not reassured. Fish spent her entire career in the police, working her way up to become Nottinghamshire chief constable, before retiring in 2017. “The vast majority of police officers are fantastic,” she says. “[But] there are a significant minority who are attracted to it because of the power, and the potential that you’ve got to abuse that power. I’ve seen it time and time again, through my service.”
As a survivor of abuse at the hands of fellow officers, she says the erosion of trust in the police’s capacity to protect women and girls is “what I have felt to a greater or lesser degree for many years, having been a police officer”. What she saw in her professional capacity, “the public has seen on a much grander scale, on a more graphic scale”. She points out that marginalised communities and people of colour have been aware of this for a long time, but now a broader swathe of people are experiencing it.
Fish did not intend to become a campaigner. But, upon retiring, she felt that leaving behind a policing culture that does not call out the inappropriate behaviour of colleagues and “just shrugs its shoulders and looks the other way” would do a greater detriment to the job and service she loves. She now runs a consultancy that campaigns on women’s safety.
Fish did radical work in the force. In 2016, she was the first chief constable to record misogyny as a hate crime, which she says is a first step in tackling violence against women and girls: “It sends such a powerful message that this behaviour is not acceptable and there will be consequences.” After her retirement, Fish was involved in a paper suggesting the scheme should be rolled out nationally, which was put to the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) in 2018. “Sara Thornton [then the chair of the NPCC] and Cressida Dick were two of the most instrumental people in making sure it didn’t happen. I think that injustice to women is what has driven me to say I’m not prepared to allow poor policing to be acceptable,” says Fish.
It had never occurred to her – not once, even in childhood games – that a job in the police might be an interesting thing to do until a university careers adviser suggested it. She was studying history and politics and watched friends go into high-paying jobs in the City. “I wanted something that felt much more demanding, was not just sitting in an office, and asked a lot of you personally,” she says. “Policing ticked all my boxes. It was exciting. I didn’t know if I could do it; it was challenging physically, emotionally, mentally. It has been all of those things and more.”
When she joined, in 1986, she was prepared to experience sexism; she had already seen what female friends who went into the City were going through. But it soon became clear that, in the police, there were different rules entirely for women. Her first chief constable didn’t like to employ married women (who would soon leave to have children, he believed), but also did not approve of women who “lived in sin” with a boyfriend; Fish said she was engaged, which seemed acceptable to him.
As a young “woman police constable” – as they were called until 1999 – there were numerous occasions on which she felt undermined. Her uniform shirt was thin, white and fairly transparent; on a whim, she says, the inspector would give the order for everyone to wear “shirt sleeves”. “You can imagine what happened” on colder days, she says.
She knew of female colleagues who had left the force after being assaulted. The first time it happened to her, she had risen to the rank of inspector and says she was touched inappropriately by a senior officer. She did not tell anyone, because she had felt “humiliated and stupid”.
The second time it happened, she was an assistant chief constable and at a hotel bar in London with some of the most senior people in policing. A fellow senior officer “touched me quite inappropriately. I froze and went: ‘This can’t be happening.’” She left and went to her hotel room. Soon afterwards, she told her chief constable and there was an “informal intervention”. “I wanted him to recognise what he’d done, its impact on me and to make it really clear to him that he must not behave like that to anyone else.”
But, she adds, it was really hard to tell people it had happened. “I automatically was doing that victim-blaming bit: I shouldn’t have been in a hotel bar, I shouldn’t have been the only woman there, I shouldn’t have been trying to network professionally with people who wanted to behave like that. When will I learn my place? Not only are you not in the men’s room having the conversations with them, but you can’t be in social spaces with them, because that’s not a suitable place for you.”
Fish has said that before she would think twice about reporting a sexual assault. “I just couldn’t bear the thought of reliving it, being judged by the police, the Crown Prosecution Service,” she says now. “And if, miracle upon miracle, it went to court [only 1.6% of reported rapes lead to a charge], having to go through that process. I’d like to think I was able to do that, but I’m honestly not sure.”
When Fish was a young officer, she confronted a senior officer after he came into the interview room, where she was carefully taking a statement from a woman who had reported rape. “He started yelling at her that she’d really agreed to it and she liked it a bit rough, she was just making it up. It was absolutely horrible, just watching her utter humiliation.” Afterwards, Fish went into his office and shouted at him. “I think I was still in my probation, but I was just so angry,” she says. “And he said: ‘I’m just testing, because it will be in court.’ I think that’s a really flawed argument, but who did he think he was to do that?”
Fish was around male officers who would use vulnerable women with whom they had come into contact through the job for sex, sometimes during working hours. As a probationary officer, she would wait in the panda car alone while one officer went into a house for sex. Did she ever try to report it? “It was so normal,” she says. “It was almost as if there was nothing wrong with it. It seemed horrifying to me, but everyone else thought it was normal, so what were you reporting? And then you start to think: ‘Am I normal? Maybe it’s me that’s wrong.’”
It was not easy to speak out – and that is still true, Fish says. “The pressure of the culture is to not hear and not be willing to hear. Whistleblowing wasn’t a thing then – and even if it was, the consequences, personally as well as professionally, were enormous. It was implicit – people telling stories about so-and-so as almost a warning.”
There are also more nuanced reasons why colleagues do not report each other. “You work with these people every day; you also see some brilliant things that they do as well as the dreadful things. They are not universally bad people, so it can be hard to get that impetus, or whatever it is that it takes, to actually call it out. But also, looking back in my career, through the 80s and 90s, [instances such as sex on the job] were normalised and almost worn as a badge of pride for some.”
Like the idea of the “bad ’un”, it is tempting to view such behaviour as something that happened only in previous decades, but it is still going on. This week, the Times revealed that, in the past four years, more than 2,000 police officers have been accused of sexual misconduct, including rape. In Fish’s later years at Nottinghamshire, male officers were sending “dick pics” to female colleagues. More recently, a woman who was arrested by the Met at a vigil for Everard said she had been approached by male police officers on the dating app Tinder, while an officer guarding the search area after Everard’s murder was taken off duty after allegedly sending colleagues an offensive graphic on WhatsApp. It is hard not to suspect a widespread disrespect for women’s lives.
In 2012, when Fish was an assistant chief constable, one of her officers, Simon Jones, was convicted of having sex with vulnerable victims. “He chose women who were domestic abuse victims, who had drugs or alcohol dependency issues – in other words, ‘unreliable’, as opposed to him, an upholder of the law, a protector of people. So who was going to be a better witness in court? And actually, he wasn’t.”
There are chilling echoes of Couzens – Jones had also transferred and had had a nickname in his previous force. He was called “pervert”; there have been reports that Couzens was called “the rapist”. Her vetting team, says Fish, “were devastated that they hadn’t got this information that was known about in his previous force”.
She fears the same could have happened with Couzens. “Despite the fact we have sophisticated whistleblower lines, so in theory we’ve got support, the culture still feels really difficult for someone who calls something out. People don’t come forward.” Rumours and “banter” may feel insignificant, says Fish, but there needs to be a “mechanism to help colleagues say: ‘I’m worried about that.’” She gives a small laugh. “Because police officers are really good at working out who is a criminal.”
Instead, she says, many police officers tend to keep concerns to themselves or “at best between their shift”. For example, she says, officers may move shifts so as not to have to work with certain colleagues instead of reporting them to someone who could intervene. As a result, she says, they may end up “giving licence” to serious criminal behaviour. “With Jones – and I can think of other colleagues as well – something wasn’t right about them.”
Last week, Boris Johnson overruled attempts to make public sexual harassment a specific offence, with one Home Office source saying the prime minister had reduced the issue to mere “wolf-whistling”. In one interview, Johnson referred to “very real crimes” such as rape and domestic abuse. “Hello, those that are reported as part of misogyny are ‘real crimes’,” says Fish, exasperatedly. “They’re on the existing statute books.”
But crimes such as indecent exposure are not taken seriously enough, she says, even though we know they can escalate – one review found that up to 10% of “flashers” later committed sexual offences involving physical contact. “This is about diminishing the reality of women’s experience. And it means that men are not intervened with and that pattern of escalation, that pattern of criminal risky behaviour, is never interrupted. And so that sense of invincibility and no consequence for them is there – but there are huge consequences for those whom they offend against.”
It has emerged that Couzens had a history of indecent exposure. Had he not taken that horrific final step, “he would still be carrying a gun around London. If he had just kept on flashing, using prostitutes and extreme pornography, I think he’d still be [in his job]. And that is really shocking.”
This is what she means, she says, about the entire culture – in policing and in society. “This isn’t about one bad apple. This is about a culture that enables apples to go off without sanction. A lot of policing doesn’t quite get it. I’ve seen some promising signs in some forces, with some leaders who are really trying to understand, so I think there’s hope. I absolutely believe that this is the time for change.”
Fish says the work her force started around sexual misconduct and violence against women and girls is “fundamentally important to reshaping policing”. In addition to running a consultancy campaigning on women’s safety, she provides leadership training and public speaking; she has advised various police forces.
She is supportive of a renewed attempt to make misogyny a hate crime, which Johnson opposes, and she would like there to be a public inquiry into “institutionalised misogyny” in the police that is on a statutory footing. The inquiry announced by Priti Patel, the home secretary, is “like a fairy step in the right direction – but without the power to compel witnesses, I just think it’s sort of a tick in a box. I think it’s lip service, that ‘hopefully these shouty women will go away soon’. And we’re not going away.
“I’ve seen the most amazing policing, and I’ve seen the worst, and I know which one the public needs,” she says. “As a member of the public who now receives policing, rather than delivers it, I want me, my daughters and my granddaughter to have the same quality of policing that my husband and my son expect as men.”
In the UK, Rape Crisis offers support for rape and sexual abuse on 0808 802 9999 in England and Wales, 0808 801 0302 in Scotland and 0800 0246 991 in Northern Ireland. In the US, Rainn offers support on 800-656-4673. In Australia, support is available at 1800Respect (1800 737 732). Other international helplines can be found here.