The police blunders that left Wayne Couzens free to murder Sarah Everard

Wayne Couzens had such a reputation for sexual deviance that he was known to his colleagues as "the rapist".

Identified as the suspect in an indecent exposure case six years ago, it was also an open secret that he was a drug user with a taste for extreme pornography.

Then, three days before he abducted Sarah Everard, Couzens exposed himself at a McDonald’s drive-thru restaurant. Staff reported the incident to police, who identified his car via CCTV. He was not arrested, leaving him free to kidnap, rape and murder.

For Sarah’s family, the pain of losing her, and the knowledge of the unimaginable ordeal she suffered at Couzens’ hands, have been multiplied by the awful truth that he gave the police plenty of chances to stop him – but all of them were let slip.

Failings in vetting, whistleblowing and straightforward policing were all to blame.

Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, said on Thursday that the Metropolitan Police had "serious questions" to answer about its failure to stop Couzens, but the Met was by no means the only force that allowed him to hide in plain sight.

Couzens, 48, spent 20 years working as a mechanic in his family’s garage in Dover – where he once told a colleague he liked "brutal" pornography – before joining Kent Police as a traffic officer in 2006.

He later transferred to the Civil Nuclear Constabulary, guarding Dungeness nuclear power station in Kent and Sellafield in Cumbria, where he would patrol carrying a Heckler and Koch G36 rifle.

‘Gave women the creeps’ – but behaviour went unreported

It was while working for the Civil Nuclear Constabulary, which he joined in 2011, that Couzens was given the nickname "the rapist" by fellow officers because of the way he behaved towards female colleagues.

He reportedly "gave women the creeps" but, in the male-dominated world of policing, none of the women made a formal complaint against him.

Since his arrest, several women have come forward to make historic allegations of harassment against him, and the Home Secretary is now under pressure to order a review of whistleblowing protocols in all police forces.

If Couzens’ behaviour had been reported at the time, he might have been thrown out of the force years before he used his warrant card to coax Miss Everard into his car. It was the first of several missed opportunities to stop him.

Sir Tom Winsor, the Chief Inspector of Constabulary, on Thursday confirmed that Couzens was known as "the rapist" by other officers and that the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) was investigating what other officers knew about him.

Asked on BBC Radio 4’s The World At One whether he was aware of Couzens’ nickname, Sir Tom said: "Yes, I do know that. And [he] also had allegedly a reputation in terms of drug abuse, extreme pornography and other offences of this kind."

He warned that police officers were failing to raise concerns about colleagues and blamed a "culture of colleague protection" within the service, adding: "In too many respects, there is evidence of police officers who become aware of damaging or worrying characteristics in police officers of not reporting them, not putting up a warning flag, and that needs to change."

Parm Sandhu, a former chief superintendent in the Metropolitan Police, said she had been "vilified" when she raised concerns about the way she was treated by male colleagues, saying: "The police service is very sexist and misogynistic. A lot of women will not report their colleagues.

"What happens is that male police officers will then close ranks, and the fear that most women police officers have got is that when you are calling for help, you press that emergency button or your radio, they’re not going to turn up and you’re going to get kicked in the street. So you have got to be very careful which battles you can fight and which ones you can actually win."

Inquiries were continuing to establish whether Couzens was responsible for any other crimes, Scotland Yard said.

Flashing while driving

Couzens is now known to have repeatedly exposed himself while driving – an offence which would almost certainly have ended his police career if it had been detected at the time.

In June 2015, a male motorist made a complaint to police that he had seen a man driving around Dover naked from the waist down. This time it was Kent Police that had a golden opportunity to root out the future murderer but, once again, he slipped through the net.

The Metropolitan Police had 'serious questions' to answer about its failure to stop Wayne Couzens, said Priti Patel

Credit: Metropolitan Police

Couzens was identified as the suspect, but for reasons that remain unclear he was not arrested and his then employer, the Civil Nuclear Constabulary, was not informed. Kent Police marked the investigation as "no further action".

The incident only came to light when it was disclosed earlier this year by the IOPC, which is investigating alleged failures in the case after Kent Police referred itself to the watchdog.

A porous vetting process

Despite Kent Police’s failure to arrest Couzens, the fact that he had been identified as a suspected flasher might still have come to light when he applied to transfer to the Metropolitan Police in 2018.

New officers are thoroughly vetted for any previous misdemeanours, and it is likely that a thorough search of police intelligence databases would have thrown up Couzens’ name in connection with the flashing incident.

Although he was vetted, the flashing incident did not come to light and he was able to walk straight into a new job. The Met admitted on Thursday night that even if the indecent exposure allegation had emerged, the fact that Kent Police had decided on no further action would have meant he still would have passed.

A cursory check on Couzens’ finances during his employment with the Met would have revealed that he was in deep trouble financially.

At the time of his arrest, he was £29,000 in debt and using payday loans in an attempt to keep his head above water. Such financial difficulties would surely have raised a red flag had they been discovered, as they would make any officer more susceptible to corruption.

After his arrest it also came to light that Couzens, a married father of two, had joined the dating website match.com last December, using his middle name, Antony, and was also in contact with an escort with the username "escourtbabygirl".

In February last year, he successfully applied to join the Met’s Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection Unit, meaning he was once again an armed officer. The role would usually require candidates to undergo enhanced vetting, but it is unclear whether Couzens, who had not even served his full two years on probation by then, was subjected to any fresh checks.

The police belt recovered from Couzens' locker in Lillie Road, London

Sir Tom said on Thursday there were "too many backlogs" in police vetting procedures, adding: "What police forces do not routinely do is they do not re-vet a police officer who is coming from another force.

"He carries his clear vet with him and unless the police officer is transferring to a sensitive role like firearms he or she is not vetted… I think there is a strong case for that to be done."

The last – and biggest – missed chance

Couzens gave police one more chance to catch him when he returned to his habit of flashing just days before he murdered Miss Everard.

On Feb 28, a member of staff at a McDonald’s drive-thru in Swanley, Kent, called the police to report a man in a car who was naked from the waist down. Female members of staff are understood to have seen him do the same thing the previous day. CCTV clearly showed Couzens’ car, but he was not arrested.

The Met said on Thursday that the complaint was correctly recorded and allocated to an officer for investigation but inquiries had not been concluded by March 3, the day Miss Everard was kidnapped. The force also confirmed that it had identified the vehicle shown on the McDonald’s CCTV but that Couzens had not been identified as the registered owner before he disposed of Miss Everard’s body in the same car. 

Two officers from the Metropolitan Police, which covers Swanley, are being investigated by the IOPC for possible breaches of professional standards that may amount to misconduct.

Zoe Billingham, one of the four inspectors of constabulary who work under Sir Tom, said every case of indecent exposure should be investigated or attended if there was an "evidential opportunity".

Dame Vera Baird, the victims’ commissioner, said: "Flashing is an abusive, appalling and highly sexualised way to behave to a woman. It should raise a red flag about a man’s approach to women, especially as a police officer. That was not investigated the first time and clearly not the second. It was a complete failure of policing their own people and a complete failure to see a red flag."

The Met said on Thursday it had sent a file to the Crown Prosecution Service following an investigation into the incident.

Miss Everard’s parents must forever live with the knowledge that, just three days before Couzens murdered their daughter, police had everything they needed to arrest and question him on suspicion of a crime that would have ended his career.

Instead, he kept his warrant card and his handcuffs, the tools he needed to convince a streetwise 33-year-old to get into his car and to restrain her so that she was helpless from that moment on.

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