SARAH VINE: Like most of us, it would’ve been hard-wired into Sarah’s brain that a policeman was someone she could trust. It makes my blood boil that she met a monster with a licence to kill

Sarah Everard’s parents are completely right: if Wayne Couzens had not been a police officer, she would almost certainly be alive today.

If this serial sex offender – a man who, it now transpires, had allegedly committed a very serious sexual assault against a child, described as barely in her teens, before his 20-year policing career even began – had not been able to hide behind the trust and authority of his badge, she would never even have let him stop her, let alone allowed him to handcuff her and put her in the back of his hired car.

Sarah was no fool. But she was, like so many of us, a law-abiding citizen, someone who respected authority and trusted in the institutions that govern a civilised society. Couzens was a police constable and a firearms officer (he even worked in the Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection Command, although she wouldn’t have known that) and he had the badge to prove it. What possible cause might she have had to suspect he was a rapist and murderer?

Wayne Couzens had allegedly committed a sexual assault against a child before his 20-year policing career even began

Like countless young Londoners who move to the less salubrious parts of the capital to make lives for themselves, Sarah would have been acutely aware of the dangers. Watch that footage of her walking home and you can see she is moving fast, with purpose. It’s not even late – around 9pm – and she had been speaking to her boyfriend on her mobile.

We’ve all been there. I remember making that same kind of journey in and around the capital in my teens and twenties, before the advent of Uber when cabs were prohibitively expensive, and anyway wouldn’t go south of the river or north of the City.

You needed all your wits about you, often clutching your keys in your hand, checking over your shoulder from time to time, following the pools of light from the street lamps. If you ever happened to come across a couple of lads or someone who looked suspicious, you would cross the road, go into a corner shop, step into a phone booth to make a call.

But a policeman? Why would you suspect someone like that? Of all the characters Sarah might have been likely to encounter on the streets of south London, a copper would have been the very last to present as a threat in her mind. Indeed, it would have been likely hard-wired into her brain that a badge was something she could trust.

Fair enough, she might have been slightly baffled to be stopped. Then again, it was mid-Covid, a time when all of us were being asked to comply with a set of complex, sometimes bizarre, ever-changing rules.

People were being stopped all the time in streets and parks, usually for breaking some new directive they hadn’t even realised existed. I remember being shouted at once by a police officer for sitting down on a park bench to rest my legs for ten seconds, for heaven’s sake. The newspapers were full of stories about people getting into trouble or being fined. Poor Sarah was probably too worried about having inadvertently done something wrong to sense the danger ahead.

When my daughter was younger and first started travelling to school and going out on her own, I remember telling her: ‘If you ever get scared or find yourself in trouble, find somewhere busy, look for someone in authority: a security guard, anyone in uniform – a policeman.’ And there she is, Sarah, talking to a copper on a busy road, captured on CCTV shortly before this monster drove her all the way to Dover where he raped and strangled her and set fire to her body.

I keep thinking of what Sarah’s mother said in her victim impact statement, about seeing the footage caught on the camera of a passing bus, and silently screaming inside: ‘Don’t get in the car, Sarah!’ and my heart breaks for her. But mostly, it makes my blood boil.

Sarah Everard was walking home when she was abducted, raped and murdered by Couzens while he was off duty

Sarah Everard was walking home when she was abducted, raped and murdered by Couzens while he was off duty

Crowds gather for a vigil to remember Sarah outside New Scotland Yard on March 14, 2021

Crowds gather for a vigil to remember Sarah outside New Scotland Yard on March 14, 2021

Sarah was not a ‘vulnerable’ young woman; she was not drunk or intoxicated, she had not put herself in any danger. She was not lost or staggering home via some murky back alley. She was on a main road in full view of passers-by at a perfectly reasonable time of night. She was wearing sensible, practical clothing.

There was literally nothing this young woman could have done to protect herself more, and yet just a few hours later she was dead in the most horrific of circumstances.

That is the principal reason her murder triggered such a huge outpouring of grief and anger among women of all ages: if it could happen to Sarah, it could happen to any of us, any of our daughters.

All violent deaths are an affront to humanity, but there is something especially twisted about the circumstances of Sarah’s. Couzens was meant to be one of the good guys, a hero, a protector. He turned out to be a monster.

Even worse, he could have been stopped – again, by the very same people whose job it is to keep us safe from fiends like him: his colleagues in the police force. If they had done their jobs properly, if they had paid attention to even a tiny number of the many (and there were many) allegations levelled at him from a variety of women across the years, he would not have been in a position of such authority.

He would have been just another creep on the street of the kind we women – even at my age – are all too used to dealing with on a regular basis and know to steer well clear of. But thanks to them, he wasn’t. He was a policeman, and that gave him, quite literally, a licence to kill.

Sarah’s brutal murder is the ultimate betrayal of a society that still protects male predators from the consequences of their actions; of a culture that turns a blind eye to certain male behaviours and instead of seeing them for what they are – abusive, intrusive, potentially very dangerous – dismisses them as mere misunderstandings or overreactions on the part of the victim.

Time and again Couzens’ behaviour was flagged; time and again it was ignored. Why? Because he was one of the lads? Because he was good at his job? Because all women are hysterical? Because we can’t take a joke? Because, honestly, don’t flatter yourself, love. We all know the drill. We’ve heard it a million times before.

I’ve always believed that, as women, we mustn’t fall into that trap of thinking that all men are a potential danger to women. They are manifestly not, and it’s stupid and reductive to argue otherwise.

I’ve also always believed that as women we must take responsibility for our own safety and try, wherever possible, not to put ourselves in the path of unnecessary danger.

But Sarah’s case has made me question all of that. Her murder was not just a terrible crime and an unspeakable tragedy for her family; it has also shattered the fundamental principles that as young girls and women we are taught: look after yourself, be responsible, trust in the authorities and you will be safe.

It’s going to take a very long time before any of us believes that lie again.