London Police Officers Charged Over Offensive WhatsApp Messages

LONDON — Three London police officers were criminally charged with sending “grossly offensive messages,” a police watchdog announced on Thursday, after an investigation that began in the wake of the kidnapping, rape and murder of Sarah Everard by a fellow officer.

The charges come during an already tumultuous time for London’s Metropolitan Police Service: Last week, the leader of the force resigned under pressure after another series of troubling messages sent by police officers emerged.

While a product of an investigation that emerged after Ms. Everard’s killing, the charges announced Thursday do not appear to be related to that case in particular. The allegations involve messages investigators say were sent two years earlier, between April and August 2019. Investigators did not disclose the contents of the messages.

Of the three officers charged on Thursday — none of whom were named — two currently serve on the force and the other is a former officer, according to the Independent Office for Police Conduct, an official watchdog. Its investigation led to the charges, which were brought by the Crown Prosecution Service.

A hearing is scheduled for March for the officers. The Metropolitan Police Service said that the two active officers had been suspended.

The agency said in a statement that the charges stemmed from an investigation into the phone records of Wayne Couzens, the officer who killed Ms. Everard in March 2021. The messages had been recovered from a cellphone discovered during the police investigation into Ms Everard’s murder, the watchdog agency had said earlier.

Mr. Couzens was serving as a London police officer in March 2021 when he used his police identification card and other official equipment to stage a fake arrest and handcuff Ms. Everard as she walked home during a pandemic lockdown.

He sexually assaulted her, and seven days later, her charred remains were found stuffed in green trash bags in the woods dozens of miles from London. Mr. Couzens pleaded guilty to the crimes and was sentenced to life in prison.

The murder of Ms. Everard galvanized a national movement demanding better protection for women, and raised calls for reforms within the police service, particularly focused on routing out misogyny.

Late last year, the government announced a public inquiry into the force, intended to explore whether opportunities to stop Mr. Couzens were missed, and address concerns over the hiring process.

The police service, the largest in Britain, also announced an independent review into its own standards and culture.

But the Metropolitan Police Service has continued to be embroiled in controversy in the months since. Last year, two police officers were sentenced to 33 months in prison for taking photos of the bodies of Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, sisters who were killed in a London park in June 2020, and sending them to numerous people on the encrypted WhatsApp messaging service.

Two weeks ago, a damning report detailed a pattern of misogyny and bullying in the force, and revealed more troubling WhatsApp messages littered with racism and disparaging comments about women.

In the wake of the report, Cressida Dick, the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service, resigned under intense pressure from Mayor Sadiq Khan of London. Mr. Khan has maintained that more must be done to rid the police force of a problematic culture to restore public trust.

“There has got to be an acknowledgment that there are deep cultural issues,” Mr. Khan said in speaking to LBC radio on Thursday. “We’re not talking about unconscious bias, we’re not talking about unwitting prejudice, we are talking about overt racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, discrimination and the like.”

Some policing experts have noted that the renewed scrutiny on the police service in the wake of the series of high-profile failures means that more incidents like this are likely to come to light. Others say the charges could be a sign that shining a light on the misogyny in the force is having an impact.

“At one level, this stuff is deeply depressing,” wrote Jolyon Maugham, the executive director of the Good Law Project, a governance watchdog, in a post on Twitter in response to the news. “At another level, it suggests the public and campaigning focus on police misogyny might finally be starting to bear fruit.”

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