Sarah Everard: ex-Met PC investigating Wayne Couzens hours before murder found guilty of gross misconduct
A Met spokesman says while the hearing was not about deciding whether PC Lee could have stopped Wayne Couzens, he was sorry he "was not arrested before he went on to murder Sarah Everard"
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Warning: readers may find details of this story distressing.
A former Metropolitan Police officer has been found guilty of gross misconduct, over her dishonesty about her investigation into Wayne Couzens over two flashing incidents - hours before he kidnapped, raped and murdered Sarah Everard.
After a week-long police disciplinary hearing, constable Samantha Lee was found to have failed to make “the correct investigative inquiries” over two incidents when Couzens exposed himself to female drive-through employees at a McDonalds in Kent, in February 2021.
The former officer was also found to have lied about her actions when later questioned about an interview with the restaurant's manager Sam Taylor, where she claimed that she believed that CCTV at the restaurant was deleted automatically so there would be no footage of Couzens or the offence. Mr Taylor said he had shown her the footage, and offered to download a copy for her.
Panel chairman Darren Snow found that this dishonesty amounted to gross misconduct, and had Lee still been a serving officer, she would have been dismissed from the force.
In response to the panel's ruling, deputy assistant commissioner Stuart Cundy said he recognised "this entire case has raised concerns and questions" about the force.
“An independent IOPC investigation concluded former PC Lee should face a misconduct hearing for allegations about her honesty and integrity, and how she carried out her duties and responsibilities," he continued. "Today, a panel led by an independent chair, found that her actions fell below the professional standards expected of her."
Cundy continued: “As the panel has made clear, honesty and integrity are fundamental to policing and our relationship with the public."
The purpose of the gross misconduct hearing was "not to decide whether Wayne Couzens’ future offending could have been prevented", he said, which would be the subject of the upcoming Angiolini Inquiry.
“Fundamentally, I am sorry that Couzens was not arrested before he went on to murder Sarah Everard and we continue to think of her loved ones. We know that in recent years the Met’s response to violence against women and girls has not been good enough. We are working hard with survivors, communities and partners to improve our response and rebuild trust.”
After earlier debate during the hearing, on Thursday (18 May) Lee said: “I accept now that there was CCTV and that I should have asked more questions about it.”
However, she told the tribunal there was nothing she could have done that would have stopped Couzens from kidnapping and murdering Ms Everard.
“I accept that I could have done more around CCTV and evidence gathering, that was errors on my part and I accept that,” she said. “And as much as I have thought it over and over, I don’t believe that anything I could have done would have changed the tragic outcome of what happened later that day.”
On Tuesday, Lee was alleged to have lied about her actions when later questioned about the interview with Mr Taylor, claiming she believed that the CCTV at the restaurant deleted automatically and so there was no CCTV evidence of Couzens or the offence.
Mr Taylor said that he had shown Ms Lee CCTV footage and told her it could be downloaded onto a USB stick. “I showed her on the actual screen in the office,” he said.
“I showed her what I looked at before using the time from the receipts and it shows the car coming around.” He said he explained to her that Couzens’ registration plate could be seen in the CCTV footage of the second incident.
Mr Taylor said he knew what times to play the CCTV at because of the time stamps on Couzens’ receipts. He said he showed her all the evidence he had. “I told her everything I knew and I explained how we caught him out the second time,” he said.
Lee stayed at the restaurant for “probably” 10 minutes in total, he said. Mr Taylor said he also gave her Couzens’ receipts from the two incidents, which showed the same last four digits of a credit card number, and witness statements he had gathered from the victims.
On March 12, a meeting was held between Lee and her commanding officer Inspector Rita Jones, after the arrest of Couzens three days earlier. Ms Jones said she was “shocked” to discover that Ms Lee still had the witness statements and they had not been placed in a sealed evidence bag.
“I was a tiny bit shocked she still had them,” she said. “This was two weeks later.” She added that Lee also did not mention the existence of the receipts, and that she did not realise at the time that there had been two incidents of flashing.
However, she said that Couzens’ offending during the incidents was, at most, “medium risk” and it would not have been treated as needing an immediate call. “The risk is now at the level of a medium risk,” she said. “You would ask them to do it as a priority, maybe not as an immediate call, but as a priority.”
This comes after Couzens pleaded guilty to three flashing incidents while working as a police officer, for which he was handed a 19-month prison sentence in March this year. The former Met Police officer, 50, is already serving a whole life jail sentence for the murder of Ms Everard, 33.
Two of those incidents involved Couzens exposed his genitals to staff at a drive-through fast food restaurant in Kent. He sat in his car and looked straight at them as he showed his erect penis, while handing his card to pay for food.
Lee attended the restaurant in March 2021, where she interviewed the branch’s manager hours before Ms Everard was kidnapped by Couzens in Clapham, in Southwest London, the hearing was told on Monday.
According to a statement given by Mr Taylor, the manager of the McDonald’s drive-through, on both occasions Couzens was seen by female members of staff. His statement said: “On both occasions the customer was sitting in his car with his trousers fully down and his penis out on display.”
Opening the case on behalf of the Met Police on Monday, Paul Ozin KC told the hearing that after Mr Taylor reported the incidents to the Met Police on 28 February, the matter was triaged and recorded as “less urgent”.
Mr Ozin said that a computer check was done after Mr Taylor made the call, and the check confirmed that the black Seat Exeo had been registered to Wayne Couzens since January 2018. He added: “There is no standard check that takes place to see whether a suspect in criminal police cases are police officers.”
Ms Lee attended the restaurant on the afternoon of 3 March. It was her last appointment of the day. “We suggest that the work carried out was a rushed job,” Mr Ozin said.
He said that Mr Taylor claimed to have explained to Lee that while the drive-through CCTV deletes automatically, other CCTV footage showed Couzens’ car. Mr Ozin told the hearing that Lee’s case is that she spoke to Mr Taylor when she attended the McDonald’s, but he did not show her the CCTV footage. “PC Lee said that he showed her the CCTV system and how it worked, but did not show her any footage or anything about the incident,” he said.
Mr Ozin said that she accepted that she did indeed take possession of receipts and witness statements from Mr Taylor. In a report made after attending the restaurant, Lee recommended that Couzens be arrested and questioned.
He said that Lee claims that she believed that the report would be allocated to a different team to follow up on. However, he claimed that she did not put the witness statements and the receipts in a sealed evidence bag, instead keeping them in a pocket in her body armour.
Mr Ozin said: “One of the central issues of this case is whether there has been some horrible misunderstanding.” He said that Lee’s behaviour “suggests that she was more intent in getting away quickly than in performing her duties properly”.
“It is supportive of the unpalatable conclusion that that PC Lee just did not bother to get the CCTV, even though she knew it was important, instead relying on others to do that instead of her," he added. "And that she later lied to others when she knew that the stakes had escalated astronomically.”
The hearing continues.