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London teacher's murder reignites outcry over violence against women in the U.K.

Britain Woman Killed
An undated photo provided by the Metropolitan Police on September 23, 2021 shows Sabina Nessa, who was murdered in a park in south London very near her home. Metropolitan Police via AP

London — The murder of a 28-year-old London elementary school teacher has reignited outrage over the prevalence of violence against women in the U.K., and fueled a debate playing out on both sides of the Atlantic over how much attention crimes get in the media depending on the race of the victim.

London police investigating the killing of Sabina Nessa made an arrest on Thursday, but on Friday evening they said he had been released, pending further investigation. No other suspects were in custody as of Friday, so the killer or killers remained at large.

Police say Nessa was making a five-minute walk from her home to a nearby bar to meet a friend when she was attacked. Her body was discovered the next day.

Nessa's southeast London community of Kidbrooke has organized a candlelight vigil for Friday evening to honor her life. It was to be held in a square near to where her body was found. The vigil will end with a minute of silence at 8:30 p.m., to mark the time she left her home.

Many have paid tribute to her character, including the head teacher of the school where she worked, who told BBC News she was "a brilliant teacher… kind, caring and absolutely dedicated to her pupils."

Nessa's cousin told the BBC she was "the most caring person, kindest, sweetest girl you could meet," and added: "Her parents are absolutely shocked. They're inconsolable still, and understandably so. To hear of their daughter being taken away from them by some cowardly man is just horrific."

The police and local government have been criticized for their response to the murder. The local government in Kidbrooke has handed out 200 personal alarms to women and vulnerable people in the area. Police distributed information sheets with tips for staying safe on the streets, including recommendations to "plan your route in advance," "tell someone where you're going" and "stick to busy places."

The advice drew a quick public backlash, with many pointing out that Nessa was attacked while making a short walk through a busy park in her own neighborhood.

"It's not our fault that we keep getting killed," Jaime Klingler, co-founder of the activist group Reclaim These Streets, told CBS News. "This is not on us, and they need to stop putting it on us."

Klingler believes that while both the police and U.K. government officials have talked a lot about women's safety, especially in the wake of the highly publicized murder of Sarah Everard by a police officer earlier year, there hasn't been effective action taken to address the problem.

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Klingler dismissed a recent government report on police responses to violence against women and girls as "158 pages of 'we need to make women more of a priority,' but there wasn't one thing saying: 'these are the steps we have to take to improve.'"

Reacting to the backlash on Friday, London Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Louisa Rolfe said the force was not, in fact, urging women to change their own behavior to avoid assault. 

"It's really important to us that we don't ask women to change their behaviour," she said. "Violence against women and girls is a priority for police across the U.K. but we're really conscious that women should be free to go about their lives without fear of abuse."

She said violence against women had the "hallmarks of an epidemic," and that it was "tolerated far too much in society and we the police are determined to bring offenders to justice and to prevent these offenses where we can."

Nessa's murder has also reinvigorated discussion in the U.K. about so-called "Missing White Woman Syndrome."  

London Councillor Rabina Khan defines the term, first coined by American journalist Gwen Ifill, as: "The disproportionate media coverage of missing people and victims of violent crime if you are young, white, middle-class women, in comparison to someone who's not white."

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Khan, and many others, have drawn parallels between Nessa's murder and Everard's. Everard was murdered by a London police officer who didn't know her, but who had previously been accused of flashing a woman.

"I was really pleased and proud that the Duchess of Cambridge attended the vigil of Sarah Everard, and I hope tonight, this evening, that we see many [high] profile people attending Sabina Nessa's vigil," Khan said on British TV Friday morning.

Klingler said that when it comes to cases involving women of color, there generally aren't "the alarm bells," or the public feeling of, "this could be my daughter — there wasn't the outrage."  

She pointed to the murders of Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, two Black sisters who were killed in London in June 2020.

"It was barely reported," she said. "The day the court case started, there was nothing in the papers. That case was one of the most horrific things I've read in my life." The police service's handling of that case prompted three investigations into police misconduct.

Klingler said the issue of femicide still wasn't "even in the top-three priorities of police stations."

"I would love to say I stood up, I went on TV shows, I did all this work, and look what we changed. In reality, nothing's changed," she said. "None of us feel any safer."

A 38-year-old man was arrested on Thursday in connection with the investigation into Nessa's murder, but on Friday evening, London's Metropolitan Police said he had been released without charge. He remained a subject of the investigation. 

The police also released images on Thursday of another man, caught on security cameras in the area, who they want to speak with regarding the case. They've asked anyone who recognizes him to come forward. 

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