A 'watershed moment' for the Met as it faces biggest reputational crisis in decades

The Metropolitan Police faces a major reputational crisis following last week’s sentencing of a serving officer, Wayne Couzens, for the murder of Sarah Everard, along with a landmark ruling by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal in the ‘spy cops’ scandal.

Dame Cressida Dick, Metropolitan Police Commissioner, addresses the media following the sentencing of Wayne Couzens (Getty Images)
Dame Cressida Dick, Metropolitan Police Commissioner, addresses the media following the sentencing of Wayne Couzens (Getty Images)

Trust in the Met, particularly among women, is at its lowest ebb and negative perceptions of the force will have wider repercussions on UK policing.

What began as a missing persons investigation earlier this year has become a full-blown reputational crisis for the Metropolitan Police.

The shock that a serving Metropolitan Police officer kidnapped, raped and murdered the 33-year-old marketing executive Sarah Everard has shaken the institution, which faces a crisis unlike any since the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes in 2005.

According to media reports, Wayne Couzens was dubbed “the rapist" by some of his colleagues and had been linked to two previous allegations of indecent exposure.

Just days after the 48-year-old was arrested on suspicion of kidnap and murder, in March this year, the Met was condemned for its aggressive response to a vigil held for Everard (pictured below) on Clapham Common, London.

Scuffles broke out as arrests were made, including of one woman who was pinned to the ground and handcuffed.

A review by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services said the vigil was a “public relations disaster for the Metropolitan Police.”

Sarah Everard
Sarah Everard

Damaging stories

Scrutiny of the Met has intensified in recent months, with a succession of damaging stories over the past week centred on the treatment of women.

A landmark tribunal ruling into the 'spy cops' scandal found that the police violated the human rights of a woman tricked into a sexual relationship by an undercover officer.

A spokesperson for Police Spies Out of Lives told PRWeek: “The Met police is institutionally sexist and misogynistic. No amount of public relations can restore our confidence. What's needed is not a PR campaign but fundamental change to the institution.”

It emerged last week that Couzens belonged to a WhatsApp group in which discriminatory and misogynistic messages were shared. Several officers allegedly involved in the group are being investigated by the Independent Office for Police Conduct.

Couzens is one of 27 Met police officers who have committed sex offences, such as rape and possessing indecent images of children, since 2016, according to an investigation in the Sunday Mirror.

On Sunday a police officer who worked in the same unit as Couzens was charged with raping a women he met on the Tinder dating app. PC David Carrick, 46, from the Met’s Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection Command, denies the charge.

Reactive media stance

Despite the flurry of stories, the Met has not gone out of its way to engage with the media. Dame Cressida Dick, the Met's Commissioner, read out a short statement after Couzens was given a whole life sentence last week, but refused to take any questions.

The next day the Met issued advice for women approached by men claiming to be police officers. But its comms on social media, usually so sure-footed, backfired – with condemnation of the suggestion that women who are suspicious of a lone man presenting himself as a police officer, and feel they are in danger, should resort to waving down a bus, running into a house, or shouting out to a passer-by.

Former justice secretary Robert Buckland described the advice as "repugnant".

And Ashley Riley, managing director of Ashley Riley Communications, commented: “This is an awful example of how a lack of strategy and the wrong communications has a highly damaging impact on an already struggling brand."

The murder of Sarah Everard by a serving officer “has struck a devastating blow to the confidence that people have in police officers but also in the Met Police in particular”, according to policing minister Kit Malthouse.

In a desperate attempt to set the agenda on Monday, Dick announced a review of culture and standards in the Met.

“My officers, staff and I are all determined to do everything we can to make sure the public can continue to trust our officers to keep them safe,” she said.

But concern over the plummeting levels of trust in the police, particularly among women, prompted home secretary Priti Patel to announce an independent inquiry into the Met yesterday.

Watershed moment

Tim Morris, a former senior comms officer for Sussex Police and a consultant at Luther Pendragon, told PRWeek: “The Sarah Everard case feels like a watershed moment for the Met Police in the same way as the Stephen Lawrence case was almost 30 years ago.”

The Met “seems to be in imminent danger” of losing the trust of women. “The police service as whole needs to start by acknowledging that this is not just a case of one bad apple, but a whole barrel-load”, he said.

But the biggest problem is that “there is almost no opportunity for outside leaders, male or female, to come in and effect cultural change”.

One policing comms expert, speaking on condition of anonymity, accused the Met of “not being proactive enough” and “reacting from one crisis to the next”. They said: “This is about being in control of the message and the Met does not seem to be in control of its own message at the moment.”

The Met’s reputation has “taken a significant blow” according to Amanda Coleman, former head of corporate comms at Greater Manchester Police. “It’s a long road, it’s not a quick fix,” she warned. The most important thing at this stage is for the Met to be “listening” and “not rushing to say it's 'one bad apple'”.

The Met responds

In a statement to PRWeek, Ruth Shulver, interim director of comms at the Met, said: “We absolutely recognise the grave concerns of the public following the murder of Sarah Everard by a Metropolitan Police officer. The crimes of Wayne Couzens have raised many questions for policing, not least about our professional standards and our response to the safety of women.”

She continued: "These are never going to be issues that a communications response alone will be able to reassure the public. That is why we have announced a fundamental review of our culture and standards. Explaining openly what we do and why, including when we fall grossly short of what the public rightly expect of us, is at the heart of our work.”

Mistakes made
Shulver acknowledged: “There is no doubt this has been an extremely challenging and fast-moving situation and we have of course made mistakes, despite our care and passion to do right by Sarah’s family and the public. We are working flat out to address concerns and rebuild trust with a communications team that cares as deeply as the public do. We also engage extensively via a variety of reference groups to ensure we are listening to concerns, hearing challenges and taking advice.

“I’d invite colleagues from the public relations industry who would like to support us in rebuilding public confidence to get in touch and get involved.”

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