Woman’s Disappearance Prompts Outcry Over Safety on London’s Streets

Thousands of women shared stories on social media of harassment and fears of walking home at night after Sarah Everard, 33, disappeared in London last week.

Police investigators conducting a fingertip search along the side of a road in London on Tuesday after Sarah Everard’s disappearance.
Credit…Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

  • March 11, 2021

LONDON — Thousands of women across Britain have shared stories online of harassment and fear in public spaces after a woman went missing in London last week and a police officer was arrested in connection with the case.

Many women urged the authorities to make streets safer and address gender violence at a time when pandemic lockdown restrictions have emptied the country’s streets.

“We’re scared, we’re shaken and we’re intimidated,” Mandu Reid, the leader of the Women’s Equality Party, who is running for mayor of London in an election in May, said in an interview.

“While we have been confined to our homes, going out for walks has been an important release,” Ms. Reid said. “Now this has happened, and we feel under threat and under siege.”

The missing woman, Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old marketing executive, was last seen on March 3 in the Clapham neighborhood of south London. The police said on Wednesday that human remains had been found as part of their investigation into her disappearance, prompting an outpouring of grief from lawmakers, community leaders and London residents.

A photograph released by the Metropolitan Police showing Ms. Everard walking in south London on March 3 just before she disappeared.
Credit…Metropolitan Police

Many women said they were struggling to come to terms with the thought that Ms. Everard’s story — that of a woman wearing bright clothes and walking home alone at night on the street — could have been theirs.

The arrest on Wednesday of a police officer in connection with the disappearance has also shocked the public, and police officials have scrambled to remind Londoners that abductions are rare in the city. “Our job is to patrol the streets and to protect people,” said Commissioner Cressida Dick of the Metropolitan Police.

Two other incidents related to the officer threatened to plunge the Metropolitan Police into further crisis on Thursday.

The regulatory body overseeing the police said that it had opened an investigation into whether two officers had responded appropriately to a report last month that a man had exposed himself at a fast-food restaurant in south London.

The body, known as the Independent Office for Police Conduct, said in a statement that the investigation was in connection with the arrested officer. The Metropolitan Police said Wednesday that the officer had been arrested on suspicion of murder and kidnapping, and a separate allegation of indecent exposure.

The police conduct body also said it had opened an investigation into “police contact” with the arrested officer, who was treated in the hospital after sustaining a head injury while in custody on Wednesday. It did not provide further details.

The developments came as the British branch of U.N. Women reported this week that over 70 percent of women in Britain had experienced sexual harassment in public.

“It’s devastating,” Maya Tutton, a founder of Our Streets Now, which calls for measures against public sexual harassment, said of the report’s findings. “It starts with sexist jokes and ends with femicides,” Ms. Tutton said. “It’s just crucial that we tackle that.”

Officials including Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Mayor Sadiq Khan of London expressed sadness over Ms. Everard’s disappearance. Commissioner Dick called the situation “every family’s worst nightmare.”

Online, women offered countless testimonies about facing catcalls, unwanted attention, threats and assaults in public spaces. As Ms. Everard’s name trended on Twitter in Britain on Thursday, stories included recollections of anxious walks, of being followed in the streets and having to run and of being harassed in a public space.

Women also listed measures they felt compelled to take to mitigate risks, such as sharing with other women the addresses of places they go at night, keeping keys clenched in their hands as a weapon, choosing better-lit routes in the hope of avoiding danger, and having an app that sends a text with the person’s location when it detects a scream.

“Headphones at lowest volume, keys clenched in my hand, rape alarm in my pocket, fearful of the dark at 8.30 p.m.,” Joanna Montgomery, a 43-year-old London resident, wrote on Twitter as she shared a picture of walking two dogs on a street.

Credit…Ben Stansall/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Ms. Montgomery said that she had lived for 15 years in Clapham, where Ms. Everard was last seen, and that she had taken the same route many times. “Women shouldn’t have to put up with it,” she said. “And yet we accept that we have to.”

Many men also posted on social media asking what they should do to improve the situation, and hundreds shared tips on how to help women feel less threatened.

While city officials have acknowledged that “too many women feel unsafe when traveling, working or going out at night,” activists and community leaders say little has been done to make the streets safer amid lockdown restrictions, when walking remains one of the few activities that people are allowed to do in public.

Ms. Everard left a friend’s house in south London around 9 p.m. on March 3. Her journey back home should have taken her around 50 minutes, and she was last spotted on CCTV at 9:30 p.m. near a road intersection in a residential area.

Police officers have searched hundreds of houses in the neighborhood, as well as ponds in a park, Clapham Common, that Ms. Everard may have walked through that night.

But hopes that she would be found alive grew slimmer on Wednesday evening, when Ms. Dick said that officers had found human remains in Kent, around 50 miles southeast of London. Ms. Dick said the police could not confirm the identity of the remains, adding that doing so could take “considerable time.”

Ms. Everard’s disappearance is likely to add pressure to Mr. Johnson’s government, which plans to introduce measures to address violence against women and girls this year. According to national statistics, more than 55,000 rapes were recorded in England and Wales in 2019 and 2020, and one in five women in Britain will be subjected to sexual assault during their lifetime.

Credit…Ben Stansall/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

It was even more shocking to many that the main suspect in Ms. Everard’s disappearance was a police officer. The Metropolitan Police said on Tuesday that the man, in his 40s, had been arrested on Tuesday in Kent, and that a woman in her 30s had been arrested at the same location on suspicion of assisting an offender.

The officer, who serves in the Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection Command, and whose primary role was to patrol diplomatic premises, was not on duty when Ms. Everard disappeared, the police said.

On Wednesday Ms. Dick, the Metropolitan Police commissioner, sought to quell any mistrust the public may have about the force she oversees.

“I speak on behalf of all my colleagues when I say that we are utterly appalled at this dreadful, dreadful news,” she said.

But Ms. Reid, the leader of the Women’s Equality Party, said that even beyond devoting more funding to address gender violence and improving city planning to protect women, the police had a lot to do to win women’s trust.

“It’s not about safety — it’s about freedom in the public space,” Ms. Reid said. “Most of us have accepted that the streets are too dangerous for us,” she added. “But we can’t accept this any longer.”