Date updated: Wednesday 13th October 2021

The recent sentencing of Wayne Couzens for the kidnap, rape and murder of Sarah Everard to a whole life term of imprisonment has highlighted the anxiety many, especially lone females, may experience if approached by a police officer.  Couzens’ grossly abused his position as a police officer.  In the wake of this case various police forces have issued statements seeking to advise citizens about what to do if they are concerned.  For example, the Met Police gave examples about what to do if they are approached by a lone plainclothes officer, such as challenging and verifying their identification, shouting to a passer-by, waving down a bus or, if possible, calling 999.  Cheshire Police went further in acknowledging the desire to know how to verify an officer’s identity, whether in plain clothes or not, and recognised that in the light of the actions of Couzens it is right that officers expect and are tolerant of those who wish to be further reassured.  This advice has in many ways mirrored advice given recently by charities supporting this area.

Police forces will know that such challenges will generally be rare, and that there is a pressing need to rebuild public confidence.  Even so, it is remarkable that we are at a point where the Met Police could contemplate risking implying that a bus driver might be more trustworthy than their own officer.  More realistically, officers will no doubt have to go further than they might otherwise in ensuring that their identity and the reasons for their behaviour are clear to suspects and any surrounding public.  Passers-by who might be concerned about a person being detained are entitled to make reasonable enquiries, but must not wilfully obstruct the police without the clearest justification, and in any emergency it will be best to call 999 if at all possible.  Whilst tolerance will be the order of the day, those who seek to use this an excuse for evading arrest or obstructing police should not only expect short shrift from the courts, they may find that seeking to excuse poor behaviour in the wake of such an appalling crime is viewed dimly indeed.

Police do a difficult, sometimes impossibly difficult, job on the streets, in often risky, dynamic and fast-moving situations. Couzens has made that job even harder, but officers can use this as an opportunity to be as clear and transparent as the circumstances allow, and are reminded that public trust and confidence is never a given but must be hard earned. Couzens was sentenced to a whole life order because the judge found that using his office to commit the offences made them exceptionally serious.  It means the police are now in the spotlight, and this perhaps explains the interesting, and to some surprising, advice to citizens about what to do if concerned about the identity of a person purporting to be a police officer.  It is hoped that those who are anxious can feel reassured.