October 6, 2021

There haven’t been many crimes in recent years as appalling as the murder of Sarah Everard. The horrific details of the case were made public last week, during the trial of Wayne Couzens, the man who raped and killed her; and they are made all the more difficult to stomach by the fact that he was a serving police officer. It’s the abuse of a position of trust that makes this crime particularly chilling.

What’s even more appalling is that Couzens had apparently committed indecent exposure twice: once in 2015 and once three days before Everard’s murder.

Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan Police commissioner, said in an unfortunate phrase a few months ago that there is the occasional “bad ‘un” in the service. She did go on to say that they are “intolerant” of violence and that they “​​work to identify and tackle and prevent any such behaviours”. But the impression was given that the occasional bad ‘un is an inevitable part of the institution.

It appears to be rather more than one, for the record. Apparently, 27 serving Metropolitan Police officers have been convicted of sex crimes since 2016. At least one is still on the force as an unpaid special constable, having joined the Met after his conviction for indecent exposure. (A simple criminal conviction does not automatically bar you from joining the police.) Another Met officer, who worked in the same unit as Couzens, is facing rape charges this week.

It’s no surprise, then, that the Metropolitan Police has been accused of institutional misogyny — and of needing drastic reform. In the wake of an awful story, there is an understandable, human need to want to make sure it never happens again. Specifically, we feel the police should, of all professions, be the one without a single “bad ‘un”.

But it’s also worth remembering that, in the coming years or decades, no matter how well we vet police officers, you’ll read some horrible story like this again. Hopefully we can reduce the likelihood; perhaps even reduce it a lot. But the numbers involved are just too large for it to be realistic that we can bring it to zero. So we need to have some idea – with this, and with every movement campaigning for some social good, from public health to racial justice – of what success looks like. And if we want to aim for zero, then we have to be honest about what the costs of that aim are.

Here’s why I think it will be difficult to reach zero: the numbers. About 120,000 sexual offences were recorded in England and Wales in 2017, of which 40,000 were rapes. That’s a huge undercount of the actual figure committed (the Crime Survey of England and Wales estimates the true figure at four million), but let’s use it.

Presumably some of those 120,000 were committed by the same people — there probably weren’t 120,000 recorded perpetrators — but even if we half that number, we still end up at about 0.1% of the entire population of England and Wales recorded as committing a sex crime each year.

Let’s take that 0.1%, and pretend that the whole population is equally likely to commit sex crimes. There are about 160,000 police officers in the UK. That means that if police officers commit sex crimes at the same rate as the rest of the population, you would expect about 160 sex offences committed by police officers every year.

I sincerely hope that police officers don’t commit sex crimes at the same rate as the rest of the population. But even if they only do it 1% as often, you would still expect one or two every year; easily enough to fill newspapers with appalling stories. At those rates, you’d expect even rarer crimes such as rape and murder once every few years.

So let’s return to the question: what does success look like?

This is a difficult conversation for any reforming movement.Because there are costs that come with demanding too perfect a victory.

Take a topical example: Zero Covid. You can say what you like about the movement’s aims, but at least it was explicit about them: it called for the “elimination of the virus from the UK”. If there’s still a single case of Covid in your country, you have not achieved Zero Covid, and you keep trying until you have.

New Zealand was always the Zero Covid paragon, along with Australia and Hong Kong and a few other places. As recently as August, a single Auckland case that couldn’t be traced to a point of origin led to a several-week lockdown. But this week, the Wellington government formally abandoned its policy of eliminating Covid, and moved to a plan to live with the virus (albeit, no doubt, at a much lower level of the virus than we have to live with). The costs of maintaining Zero Covid in the face of the Delta variant — and the reduced threat of the virus itself, given the vaccines — led them to decide that going for absolute zero wasn’t the best policy anymore.

In the UK, we have decided that a certain mortality rate is acceptable. Professor Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust, said recently that “living with the virus” will probably mean about 100 deaths a day, or more than 30,000 a year. It’s a grim thought, but we have to be clear-eyed and say that the elimination of risk is probably impossible, so we have to tolerate some level of it.

But when it comes to violence against women and girls, what is an acceptable number of murders every year? It’s an appalling question, but it’s one we have to ask, just as we had to with Covid. And it’s worth stopping at this point and asking whether you know how many women are murdered each year right now. Give a figure, in numbers per 100,000 per year. And then say how many you think is acceptable, again in numbers per 100,000 per year: 10 per 100,000, one in 100,000, 0.1 per 100,000?

Here’s the real figure: according to the ONS, there has been an average of about 200 women and girls murdered each year in England and Wales for the last 10 years. Out of a population of about 31 million, that is a little under 0.7 women per 100,000 per year.

To be clear: I’m not saying that’s acceptable. But if you’d just said that you thought about one woman in every 100,000 was killed every year, and you wouldn’t rest until the murder rate was below one in 100,000, then we’re already below that.

If you said one in a million, then we’ve still got some way to go. But soon you’re going to start hitting up against some really hard limits. According to the World Bank, only two countries in the world recorded 0.1 murders per 100,000 female population (that is, one in a million) in their most recent data, and those two countries were Oman and the Palestinian territories, which makes me think that the data might not be entirely reliable.

Other countries manage 0.3 per 100,000: Singapore, Japan, Macao, Norway, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. But most of the countries we tend to think of as our peers — France, Germany, Australia, Sweden, Denmark, Canada — have roughly similar numbers. Getting the numbers much below that seems to be very difficult.

You could argue that it does no harm to aim for zero, even if you know you won’t get there. But it’s not as simple as that. Reducing some societal harm costs money and time, and at some point, you’re going to hit diminishing returns. You’ll have to spend ever more resources for smaller and smaller improvements.

Maybe you’d say that you can’t put a price on a human life, and that’s understandable. But the reality in which we all live puts a price on human lives for you, via opportunity costs. If you spend the money on street lighting, you can’t spend it on dialysis machines, or early years education, or renewable energy subsidies. At some stage, because of diminishing returns, you’ll reach a point where spending more money on reducing murder rates means that more people die (or more people are harmed) elsewhere.

Whatever social problem you’re talking about fixing — obesity, police brutality, inactivity, racist abuse — we need to be explicit about whether we’re aiming for zero, and facing up to all the costs that will come with, or admit that you’re really aiming for some more achievable (but more painful to accept) figure.

When it comes to police reforms, there are all sorts of trade-offs to consider. One obvious reform, for instance, might be to impose stricter rules on recruitment — such as that no one with any criminal record at all can be a police officer. But I imagine that would hinder the efforts to increase the number of non-white police recruits, since young men of colour are the most likely to have criminal records. How much it would hinder them I don’t know, and perhaps the trade-off would be worth it, but you need to start by acknowledging the trade-off.

I’m really, really not saying there’s nothing that can be done. Couzens turned up to a police work party with a sex worker, and his colleagues “jokingly” called him “the Rapist”. There is something wrong with a culture that allows that, and there are clear failures on the part of the police in investigating his earlier offences.

Most importantly, we need better data on how many police officers do commit crimes, so that we can get a sense of whether they’re more or less than we would expect. Profoundly affecting though they are, policymakers can’t make these decisions on the back of high-profile anecdotes and shocking individual stories.

Any group made up of thousands of people, such as the police force, will include some number of dreadful individuals, however hard you try to keep them out. And every so often, a dreadful person will do something dreadful.

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