How many more vigils will it take? Credit: Justin Tallis//AFP via Getty

January 17, 2023   6 mins

Some men join the police for the wrong reasons. Senior officers know this perfectly well — and they should be on guard against predators in their ranks. So what did the Metropolitan Police do when PC David Carrick, now revealed as one of this country’s most prolific rapists, kept being accused of rape and domestic violence by one woman after another? They gave “bastard Dave”, as he was known to colleagues, a gun and a place on one of the force’s elite units.

The full scale of Carrick’s offending began to emerge at Southwark Crown Court this week when he admitted 47 rapes, nine sexual assaults, three counts of coercive control, two of false imprisonment, and a string of other offences. The charges relate to attacks on 13 women in London and Hertfordshire over a period of 17 years. The court heard that Carrick remained a serving officer throughout that time, even though the Met were told about repeated allegations suggesting he was a threat to women. The senior officer who eventually investigated the case concluded that Carrick had an “appetite for degradation and control”. Surely someone should have noticed – and suspended him?

The parallels with the case of PC Wayne Couzens, the Met police officer who raped and murdered Sarah Everard, are staggering. He too had a nickname among colleagues: “the rapist”. Both men served on the parliamentary and diplomatic protection squad, where firearms are routinely carried. Both passed vetting procedures to get onto the squad, despite the allegations against them — rape in Carrick’s case, indecent exposure in Couzens’.

Both men, and this is perhaps the most frightening aspect from the point of view of public protection, used their warrant cards to deflect suspicions. Before attacking a woman in September 2020, Carrick flashed his warrant card to persuade her he wasn’t a threat. Couzens did the same to persuade Sarah Everard to get into his car in south London during a Covid lockdown in March 2021.

Carrick told his victims they would not be believed if they complained about a policeman – and he was right. He forced some women into a tiny understairs cupboard, where they were kept naked and cramped for hours. In all, the Met police received nine complaints about him for a range of alleged offences that included domestic abuse, burglary, harassment and assault. No action was taken.

The question of how Carrick and Couzens came to be on the force and remain there goes to the heart of what is wrong with policing in this country. It is the harshest possible indictment of selection, training, supervision and disciplinary procedures, all of which appear unequal to the task of dealing with even the most flagrant predators. Complaints take years to move through the system, are sometimes handled by colleagues of an accused officer, and appear to start from a point of scepticism towards the complainant.

It’s not so much a “get-out-of-jail-free” card, as a way of avoiding detection and punishment altogether. The first complaint against Carrick during his police career was filed more than 20 years ago, when he was accused of actual bodily harm against a girlfriend who was trying to leave him. No action was taken and he was reported by another girlfriend in 2004, but the Met’s department for professional standards did not investigate.

Five years later, Carrick qualified as a firearms officer and was almost immediately accused of abusing a girlfriend. The Met was informed but took no action. And so it went on: there were other allegations leading up to July 2021, when a former girlfriend went to Sussex police and accused him of rape. Even then Carrick wasn’t suspended, but was placed on ‘restricted duties’ for a few weeks. It was decided he had no case to answer and he was allowed to carry a firearm again. Carrick has now pleaded guilty to raping both women. He was finally caught in October that year, when a woman he had met on a dating site accused him of rape.

The urgent question that the Met needs to answer is “how many more?” How many other serving officers have been accused of sexual assault or domestic abuse, yet are still serving on the force? An answer emerged just after Carrick’s guilty pleas were reported, when the Met admitted it is investigating 1,000 sexual and domestic abuse claims involving around 800 of its 35,000 officers. Those of us who live in London are policed, in other words, by a force where about one in every 50 officers is under investigation.

The new Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Mark Rowley, has admitted that “hundreds” of his officers need to be sacked. Rowley believes it is too difficult at present to get rid of bad officers, but we are entitled to ask what is being done about the ones who shouldn’t be there. Have they been placed on restricted duties? Rowley inherited this mess from his predecessor, the unlamented Dame Cressida Dick, who appeared to be in denial about the scale of the problem. “Sadly, on occasion, I have a bad ‘un’,” she said after Ms Everard’s murder, falling back on the tired old “bad apple” defence.

At least Rowley admits it’s worse than that, and he has some notion of how Carrick was able to stay on the force. “We failed as investigators, where we should have been more intrusive and joined the dots on this repeated misogyny over a couple of decades,” he said on Monday evening. He acknowledged that the failures were “systemic” and that senior officers should have been more determined to root out a misogynist like Carrick.

Most of the questions being asked at present are about the role of senior officers, but police forces are supposed to be held to account by elected Police and Crime Commissioners. They are paid generous salaries, in excess of £80,000 a year, but it’s hard to see that they have had any impact at all on the culture of misogyny and impunity that exists within so many police forces. Decent officers have been complaining for years that they aren’t listened to or, worse, that their careers suffer if they try to report anxieties about colleagues. Four years ago, the Centre for Women’s Justice launched a super-complaint against a number of police forces, alleging that they were letting off male officers accused of domestic abuse. Some of the women who spoke out were themselves police officers, and one of them described how her partner warned her he had friends in high places. An official response, in June last year, recognised “systemic deficiencies” in the way some forces deal with allegations against officers and staff.

Carrick’s admission of large-scale offending confirms the widespread feeling among women that we can’t trust the police — and that the actions needed to regain public trust aren’t being taken swiftly enough. Three months ago, an interim report into the culture and standards of Met by Dame Louise Casey recognised a raft of failings, including officers facing multiple accusations from colleagues being allowed to stay on the force. Rowley said at the time that the findings of the report moved him to tears, but his remarks about the difficulty of sacking criminal officers make him sound alarmingly helpless.

“We have some very worrying cases with officers who’ve committed criminality whilst police officers and yet I’m not allowed to sack them,” he said last week. He says he has the backing of ministers to change the police recruiting system, which is an urgent priority in the midst of a drive to employ thousands more officers, but it’s hard to know why someone didn’t think of this earlier. Surely blocking men with criminal records of a history of allegations against them should have been a priority years ago?

Rowley spent much of Monday apologising for failures in the Carrick case, and he knows that the Met will face another drubbing when the final Casey report is published later this year. She has written to the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, suggesting that the non-statutory Angiolini inquiry into the rape and murder of Sarah Everard should be expanded to look at Carrick’s conduct and the missed opportunities to identify his pattern of behaviour. “If this is not possible,” Casey adds crisply, “I am willing to volunteer myself.”

It’s hard to avoid wondering why we need so many inquiries, when the obvious course of action is to combine them into one, along the lines of the Macpherson inquiry into institutional racism. I called for exactly that more than 18 months ago, when I was Co-chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board, but the result was a resounding silence.

Labour has now promised to introduce new national standards of police vetting, but over a period of decades, a hierarchy has developed in which misogyny and bullying have been normalised. Our perverse police culture is unable to identify burglars and rapists, yet apparently willing to tolerate sexual predators in uniform. What woman would trust them again?

Joan Smith is a novelist and columnist. She has been Chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board since 2013. Her book Homegrown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists was published in 2019.