Why frustration at plans for plain-clothes police in bars needs to be taken seriously

Women’s charities have called the government’s plans to have plain-clothes police officers patrol clubs, bars and other popular nightspots “poorly thought out”.  

The disappearance and death of Sarah Everard last week has triggered an important discussion about the danger faced by women on the streets and in their homes.

It’s a reality that has long overshadowed the lived experiences of women across the UK. As previously reported by Stylist, stats from the Mayor of London’s Police and Crime unit show that when it comes to sexual assault, women are almost always the victims: in the year up until March 2019, 87% of all recorded victims were female, with Black women over-represented in those statistics.  

Those numbers feel even starker when you consider the fact that, according to a report published last year, on average, a woman is killed by a man every three days in the UK.

If these stats make anything clear, it’s that we need real, systemic change to address the very real threats women continue to face in today’s society.

In an attempt to address this, Boris Johnson made an announcement on Monday 15 March, outlining a series of “immediate steps” being made by the government to improve security for women in the aftermath of Sarah’s death. This news and these subsequent steps could have been the start of the changes we need to see.

However, while the decision to double the Safer Streets fund – which provides street-safety infrastructure such as better lighting and CCTV – was welcomed by some, plans to have plain-clothes police officers patrol nightclubs and bars were not so well received.

Indeed, in the aftermath of the announcement, many women took to Twitter to highlight the glaring problems with the proposed scheme, from the lack of attention it pays to how police handle women’s complaints, to how it fails to address systemic misogyny and male violence.

Speaking on BBC Breakfast on Tuesday morning (16 March), the shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding Jess Philips also responded to the plans, saying they don’t speak to the main concerns of people who work in the sector.  

“I welcome any investment in Safer Streets – where I live and across the country, CCTV for example, which is part of that, has been cut for the past decade,” she said. “We don’t really have it in most parts where I live and in my constituency, and people always want to see it.”

Philips continued: “I have to say, from the years and years of experience that I have working on the frontline with victims of domestic and sexual violence, [the proposed plans are] not something that is ever particularly asked for by the experts or the victims in these circumstances, and currently there aren’t the laws actually to prosecute people who street harass, for example.

“I’m a bit disappointed with what came out of the prime minister’s meeting yesterday, because it doesn’t seem to speak to any of the concerns from the sector.” 

Besides the fact that the government’s proposed plans do nothing to address the lack of trust many women have in the police, as Philips highlights, it’s also a move which fails to recognise the real issues faced by victims.

Responding to news of the proposed plans, Mandu Reid, leader of the Women’s Equality Party and London mayoral candidate, said it was clear that the measures had been “poorly thought out,” and called on the government to make real change.

“Politicians need to stop managing violence against women and start preventing it, by committing to radical change in our political, justice and policing systems,” Reid tells Stylist.

“This means violence against women and girls needs to be identified as a national threat, in the same way that terrorism is, to ensure that the government can resource and deliver the right national response. It also means a radical overhaul of the criminal justice system, and statutory funding for women and children fleeing violence.” 

Addressing the lack of safety women experience on the streets and in their own homes requires real, systemic change.

Highlighting the poor relationship many victims of violence and assault have with the police, Hannah Couchman, senior legal officer at the charity Rights of Women, stressed the importance of listening to survivors when it comes to making these kinds of decisions.

“Every day, we speak to survivors of violence who have been let down and re-traumatised by their contact with the police and the wider criminal justice system,” she tells Stylist. “Rather than further extending the power and presence of the police, the Government needs to devote resources to empowering survivors to access justice and safety, and to addressing the structural inequalities that lie at the heart of endemic violence against women and girls.”

Couchman continued: “For decades, the organisations doing this work on the frontline and shining a light on these inequalities have been underfunded and under-recognised – particularly those services run by and for Black and minoritised communities. The call from the women’s sector is not for gimmicks and it certainly isn’t for more police – the solutions are far more complex and they start with listening to the needs of survivors.” 

Although there’s no one way to address the multifaceted issue of women’s lack of safety on the streets and in their own homes, what is clear is that the government’s proposed plans don’t go far enough. For example, street harassment is still not a crime in the UK – and although the government is now considering a change to the law thanks to the efforts of charities like Plan International UK, there’s still plenty of work that needs to be done.

Indeed, to make a difference, we need widespread, systemic change – and applying more policing to an already dysfunctional system simply isn’t going to cut it. 

For more information on the fight to make the UK’s streets safer for women, and to support Plan International UK’s I Say It’s Not OK campaign to make street harassment a crime, you can visit their website.

For free and confidential legal advice, you can also contact Rights Of Women’s telephone advice line. 

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