The Metropolitan Police was today facing a furious backlash over “laughable” advice that women in fear of a police officer should flag down a bus or run away in the wake of the murder of Sarah Everard.
Labour domestic abuse spokesperson Jess Phillips branded the suggestion “unbelievable”, while the former leader of Conservatives in Scotland, Ruth Davidson, described it as “horrendous”.
As calls for Met chief Cressida Dick’s dismissal intensified, Boris Johnson attempted to shore up trust in the police, insisting that they do “a wonderful”, but acknowledged that there was a problem with the way that allegations of violence against women and girls are dealt with.
Meanwhile, a Conservative police and crime commissioner, Philip Allott, was forced to apologise after he said women should be “streetwise” and Ms Everard should not have “submitted” to being falsely arrested and handcuffed by off-duty officer Wayne Couzens – who went on to rape and kill her.
Ministers were coming under intense pressure to amend the policing bill currently going through parliament to make tackling violence against women and girls a formal priority for serious violence units across England and Wales. Only eight of the 18 units currently in operation have included domestic abuse as a priority in their plans.
Tory peer Gabby Bertin, who is fighting for the change, told The Independent that the government argues the units should be able to determine priorities locally.
But she said: “This isn’t like knife crime or gun crime, which may be a priority in one area and not another. Violence against women and girls is a priority everywhere and preventing it and responding to it should be made a duty everywhere.”
Writing in The Independent, Ms Phillips said that the whole-life sentence handed down to Couzens on Thursday should be a “pivotal moment” for the way violence against women and girls is treated in the UK.
“We must turn anger into action and grief into policy change,” she said. “There are things the government can and must do to end violence against women and girls, and they must do them today.”
It was “unbelievable” that the Met should respond by putting the onus on women to act if they fear a police officer is a risk to them, she said.
Advice issued by the force on Thursday suggested that women approached by a lone plain-clothes officer should demand to know why he has no colleagues with him and ask him to prove who he is, before adding that they could “shout out to a passer-by, run into a house, knock on a door, wave a bus down or call 999”.
Ms Phillips responded: “How about the Met gets on with the job of telling us how they are going to improve their vetting, monitoring, training and disciplinary processes, rather than telling women to deal with the problem for them? How about the government tells us how they are going to ensure this is standard across every police force?”
Patsy Stevenson, who was arrested at a vigil for Ms Everard in the days following her murder, said the advice was “almost laughable if it wasn’t so disgusting”.
“In that situation you can’t just stop and hail down a bus or a taxi or something,” she said.
“Can you imagine the distrust that people have right now where they have to protect themselves from the police in that manner? That is shocking.”
Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted: “It’s not up to women to fix this. It’s not us who need to change.
“The problem is male violence, not women’s ‘failure’ to find ever more inventive ways to protect ourselves against it.”
And the chief executive of domestic abuse charity Refuge, Ruth Davison, said: “Police forces across the country must be prepared for a fundamental shift and overhaul in their attitudes towards women and root out the misogyny that is at the heart of these failings.”
Labour MP Abena Oppong-Asare wrote to Dame Cressida demanding “clarification” of the advice, which she said had been greeted with “ridicule and derision” in her south London constituency.
“The idea that a young black constituent could run away from a police officer attempting to arrest them and not face severe consequences is, frankly, unbelievable,” said Ms Oppong-Asare.
Former Lord Chancellor Charlie Falconer said it appeared both the government and the Met Police were simply hoping that “the storm passes without the need for change in senior personnel or practice”.
Lord Falconer warned: “Unless there are massive visible changes as quickly as possible, confidence will not begin to edge back.”
But the only reform on offer from Mr Johnson when he spoke to broadcasters was an effort to shorten delays between a complaint being lodged by a woman and the case reaching court.
Instead, the PM focused on a message of reassurance: “I do believe in the police. I do think that we can trust the police. And I think the police do a wonderful, wonderful job.
“But there is a problem. And there is a problem in the way we handle rape, domestic violence, sexual violence and the way we handle the complaints of women and girls.
Defending the government’s refusal to make prioritising the fight against violence against women and girls as a statutory duty, policing minister Kit Malthouse said that the legislation had been drawn in a way that would allow local areas to “design their own strategies about the violence that particularly affects them”.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “If there are areas that particularly want to focus on violence against woman and girls and feel they have a systemic problem, then the duty allows them to do that.”
Ms Phillips described the comment as an “insult”, adding: “Imagine him saying that about terrorism – ‘Do it if you want’.”
Former Met commissioner John Stevens has said Ms Dick should be held accountable for an “appalling series of blunders” that allowed the recruitment of Couzens as a firearms officer.
But he stopped short of demanding her resignation, saying that “both the commissioner and the politicians who have cut resources to the Met must take some responsibility”.
Cuts during Theresa May’s time as home secretary had “hollowed out the centre of the force”, said Lord Stevens.
The Independent Office for Police Conduct is investigating allegations that five serving officers and one former officer shared “discriminatory messages” with Couzens in WhatsApp texts discovered during the police investigation into Ms Everard’s murder.