Police ‘acted appropriately and were not heavy handed’ at Sarah Everard vigil, review says

Watchdog finds force ‘justified’ in taking view coronavirus transmission risks ‘too great to ignore’

Samuel Osborne,Jon Stone
Tuesday 30 March 2021 11:22 BST
Officers have come under fire for their policing of Saturday’s vigil
Officers have come under fire for their policing of Saturday’s vigil (REUTERS)

Metropolitan Police officers “did not act inappropriately or in a heavy-handed manner” at a vigil in memory of Sarah Everard, a watchdog has said.

The review by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS), also found the force was “justified” in taking the view that the risks of coronavirus transmission were “too great to ignore”.

It was called in to examine the force’s actions after women who attended the event on 13 March were pinned to the ground and arrested.

The report found officers did their best to peacefully disperse the crowd, remained calm and professional when subjected to abuse and did not act inappropriately or in a heavy-handed manner.

HMICFRS found it was unrealistic to hold a Covid-safe event on Clapham Common in light of the numbers of people who would attend and the short time available, and said the force was right to conclude the health risks of holding a vigil were too great.

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However, it said there was insufficient communication between police commanders about changing events on the ground.

"Officers are our fellow citizens, invested by the community to keep the community safe," said Sir Thomas Winsor, the Chief Inspector of Constabulary who led the review.

"They rely upon and are entitled to receive public support when they act lawfully, sensitively and proportionately; in this case, in the face of severe provocation and in very difficult circumstances, they did just that."

The report said public confidence in the Met had suffered as a result of the vigil and suggested “a more conciliatory response after the event might have served the Met’s interests better”.

The organisers of the vigil, Reclaim These Streets, cancelled plans for the event on Clapham Common on 13 March after accusing Metropolitan Police bosses of refusing to engage constructively with them.

But crowds gathered anyway, ledading to clashes between protesters and police.

Matt Parr, Her Majesty's Inspector of Constabulary, who led the inspection team, said: "Amidst a heightened public debate on women's safety, and during an unprecedented pandemic, the Metropolitan Police faced a complex and sensitive policing challenge at Clapham Common.

"Condemnation of the Met's actions within mere hours of the vigil - including from people in positions of responsibility - was unwarranted, showed a lack of respect for public servants facing a complex situation, and undermined public confidence in policing based on very limited evidence.

"After reviewing a huge body of evidence - rather than a snapshot on social media - we found that there are some things the Met could have done better, but we saw nothing to suggest police officers acted in anything but a measured and proportionate way in challenging circumstances."

But Reclaim These Streets said the watchdog's report was "disappointing" and demonstrated "institutional sexism running through the force".

"The HMICFRS interviewed Reclaim These Streets for over 10 hours. The Met Police antagonistic actions around the vigil forced us to cancel the event, which then in turn, caused a greater number of people to attend due to their publicity. We warned the Met Police on Friday night, that forcing us to cancel would cause additional risk to public safety, as did Lambeth Council. They completely dismissed our warning and concerns.

"The report also shows a failure from the Home Secretary and Policing Minister on providing a political steer for the police on this event. They agreed with the NPCC to provide a statement, but failed to so - meaning senior officers, who according to the report fail to demonstrate an understanding of Human Rights law. Where police officers are faced with making finely-balanced decisions in difficult circumstances, it is essential that the law is clear. It is incumbent on the legislature to provide a set of rules that is (first) readily capable of being accurately interpreted and applied and (second) likely to attract a high degree of public acceptance and consent."

"Instead of taking responsibility for their actions, The Metropolitan Police is standing behind claims that we were inexperienced organisers, despite some of us being elected officials and others having a decade long track record of working with police and councils on events. We anticipated a fair and balanced inquiry and are instead being told not to believe what we saw and heard reported two weeks ago. This inquiry is not representative of our experience with senior Met officials.

"The HM IC had a responsibility to begin rebuilding the trust between women and girls across the capital and the Metropolitan Police. The disregard for us as women organisers in the report is clear there is still institutional sexism running through the force."

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, said he "completely" understood why "women, girls and allies wanted to hold a vigil to remember Sarah at Clapham Common" and "show solidarity with all women who have been subjected to violence at the hands of men".

He added: “While I do not have operational control over the police, I called for the Government and MPS to find a way to allow the vigil to happen legally and safely in advance of Saturday 13 March, and was provided with assurances that the MPS would police it sensitively. 

“It is my job to stand up on behalf of Londoners and ensure that there is effective scrutiny of the Metropolitan Police - particularly in the light of such widespread public dismay.

“I accept the HMICFRS report, but it is clear that trust and confidence of women and girls in the police and criminal justice system is far from adequate. The events of the weekend of 13/14 March have done further damage to this and show that much more needs to be done.”

Ken Marsh, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, said the outcome of the watchdog's review was "no surprise" and hit out at what he called "armchair critics".

"We said on the very evening that politicians of all parties should make themselves aware of all the facts before rushing to judgment and making statements," he said.

"But these armchair critics on their Saturday night sofas did not. The knee-jerk commentary from politicians of all parties - who as the report states were reacting to a snapshot on social media rather than the facts - has made the already difficult job of our colleagues in London incredibly harder. And more dangerous. And for that these people should be ashamed."

Mr Marsh added that criticism of the police was "outrageous behaviour from those who should know better"

Shaun Bailey, the Tory candidate for Mayor of London, claimed Mr Khan had "serious questions" to answer. He claimed that the mayor had thown "the police under a bus without knowing the full story behind the events".

Sarah Everard, a 33-year old marketing executive, disappeared in South London on the evening of 3 March 2021. A serving police officer has been arrested and charged with her kidnapping and murder.

A vigil in her memory and in solidarity with other victims of violence against women held on 13 March led to confrontations with police and four arrests for breaching Covid-19 regulations. The police response was widely criticised after images of police officers pinning women to the ground.

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