Sarah Everard: Officers probed for gross misconduct over alleged WhatsApp group with Wayne Couzens

Sarah Everard was killed by police officer Wayne Couzens. Credit: PA

Five serving police officers are being investigated for gross misconduct over a WhatsApp group they allegedly shared with murderer and rapist Wayne Couzens, who has been given a whole life sentence for killing Sarah Everard.

Messages in the WhatsApp group, which also contained a former officer, were said to be "discriminatory and/or inappropriate nature", and reports say they featured misogynistic content.

Two of the officers, who worked for the Metropolitan Police - along with a former officer who previously worked for the force - are also facing criminal investigations over an alleged breach of Section 127 of the Communications Act.

The act makes it an offence to send a message that is "grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character over a public electronic communications network".

Earlier the policing minister said there's a "massive question mark" hanging over the Metropolitan Police following the murder of Ms Everard but backed under-fire Met Police chief Cressida Dick.

Sarah's murder ''eroded public confidence'' in the police, according to the judge who jailed Wayne Couzens.

In response to the sentencing of Couzens, the force recommended people challenge a plain-clothes officer operating alone in the wake of Ms Everard's murder.

The then-police officer kidnapped Ms Everard by carrying out a false arrest with his warrant card as she walked home from a friend's house.

The Met Police has issued advice to anyone who is concerned a police officer is not acting legitimately during an interaction.

What are police urging people to do?

They recommend people ask where the officer’s colleagues are, where they have come from, why they are there, and exactly why they are stopping or talking to them.

The Met Police also suggest verifying the police officer by asking to hear their radio operator or asking to speak to the radio operator themselves.

“All officers will, of course, know about this case and will be expecting in an interaction like that – rare as it may be – that members of the public may be understandably concerned and more distrusting than they previously would have been, and should and will expect to be asked more questions,” the force said in a statement.

Finally, the Met Police are advising people to shout out to a passer-by, run into a house, knock on a door, wave a bus down, or call 999.

What is known about the WhatsApp group allegedly involving Couzens?The Independent Office for Police Conduct, which is carrying out the investigations, said the offending messages were sent in the WhatsApp group between March and October 2019.Three of the officers being investigated work for the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) - where Couzens was also employed - while one was from the Civil Nuclear Constabulary (CNC) and the other from Norfolk Constabulary.

The mobile phone messages were discovered during the police investigation into Ms Everard’s murder.

Asked about the probe, police minister Kit Malthouse said: "Those allegations are under investigation so it wouldn't be right to comment on them.

"But what I hope is the police force has systems in place to identify those individuals and give other officers confidence in reporting them."

What action are the police taking after Couzens' sentencing?

The force is also investigating whether Couzens committed more crimes before he kidnapped, raped and murdered Ms Everard as the force vowed to make the streets safer for women and girls.

A senior officer admitted a vetting check on the former police officer was not done “correctly” when he joined the Met in 2018, while he was linked to an indecent exposure incident at a McDonald’s in Swanley, Kent, just 72 hours before Ms Everard was abducted in March.

The Met announced it will no longer deploy plain clothes officers on their own after the sentencing hearing was told Couzens had used lockdown rules to falsely arrest Ms Everard during the abduction.

The force has also promised to publish a new strategy for tackling violence against women and girls, outlining how it will prioritise action against sexual and violent predatory offenders.

Couzens, 48, was handed a whole life sentence at the Old Bailey on Thursday by Lord Justice Fulford, who said his “warped, selfish and brutal” offences had eroded confidence in the police.

Wayne Couzens was captured on CCTV stopping Sarah Everard and making a false arrest to kidnap her Credit: Met Police/PA

At a briefing at Scotland Yard following the sentencing, Assistant Met Commissioner Nick Ephgrave told reporters Couzens was not named in the Swanley incident but his car was reported to officers, who were said to have not yet completed the investigation.

He also said a vetting check was not carried out “correctly” on Couzens when he joined the force in 2018, linking him to another indecent exposure allegation in Kent in 2015.

The vetting did not flag up that a vehicle associated with Couzens had been identified in the Kent Police investigation.

But Mr Ephgrave said that even if it had come up in the vetting process, it would not have changed the outcome because the investigation resulted in no further action and Couzens was never named as a suspect.

He added: “We ask anyone in the service or any member of the public that might have any information about Couzens’ behaviour – either as an officer or member of the public – that might be relevant, please come forward.”

Mr Ephgrave said the Met had been referred to the police watchdog over the Swanley incident and a file sent to the Crown Prosecution Service in relation to the alleged crime itself.

The Met said their new strategy will accompany a Predatory Offender Unit which, since last November, has resulted in the arrests of more than 2,000 suspects for domestic abuse, sex offences, and child abuse.

Where will plain clothes officers be deployed?

The 650 new officers will be deployed into busy public places, “including those where women and girls often lack confidence that they are safe”, according to the force.

The Met have also promised to “step up” patrols and provide an increased police presence in areas identified as “hotspot” locations for violence and harassment.

Credit: PA Graphics

The court heard Couzens had been planning for at least a month before abducting Ms Everard, 33, as she walked home from a friend’s house in Clapham, south London, on the evening of March 3.

Metropolitan Police firearms officer Couzens, who had been “hunting” for a victim, used his warrant card and handcuffs to snatch the marketing executive off the street using Covid lockdown rules to make a false arrest.

Lord Justice Fulford said the case in which a serving officer abused his position was so exceptional it warranted a whole life order, meaning Couzens will never be freed.

Ms Everard’s parents, Jeremy and Susan, her brother James and sister Katie said they were pleased with the sentence in a statement after the hearing.

They said: “Wayne Couzens held a position of trust as a police officer and we are outraged and sickened that he abused this trust in order to lure Sarah to her death. The world is a safer place with him imprisoned.”