International

Watchdog defends London Police handling of vigil that caused uproar

London Police did not act in a heavy-handed manner at a vigil for Sarah Everard, an independent watchdog concluded, although it acknowledged that the event was a public relations disaster, according to The Washington Post.

A report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary published Tuesday (30 March) found that Metropolitan police officers “did not act inappropriately” and were “justified in adopting the view that the risks of transmitting Covid-19 at the vigil were too great to ignore”.

Like officers in the US, the Police in Britain are under heightened scrutiny over their handling of large demonstrations in the pandemic era, including Black Lives Matter protests and vigils for Everard.

Just last week, protesters in the English city of Bristol clashed with the Police during a gathering to denounce legislation that would give authorities more powers to clamp down on rallies.

Matt Parr, who led the team that looked into the Everard vigil, said in a statement: “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.”

He said that some armchair critics were too quick to judge the situation. Shortly after images and video footage of scuffles at the vigil circulated online, figures from across the political spectrum criticised the police actions.

“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,” Parr said.

The killing of Everard, a 33-year-old marketing executive who disappeared while walking home on 3 March and whose remains were found a few days later, sparked a national outcry over gender-based violence. Wayne Couzens, a police officer, has been charged in Everard’s death and is scheduled to stand trial later this year.

Gatherings in Everard’s memory were officially cancelled after talks between organisers and the Police broke down over disagreements about the legality of groups congregating amid lockdown restrictions.

But on 13 March, people began gathering at a bandstand in London’s Clapham Common, a park Everard may have walked through on her way home. Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, was among the hundreds who came to the park during the day to lay flowers.

In the report, the inspectors said the scene began to turn around 6 p.m., after the crowd held a minute’s silence. That was followed by a “rally, complete with microphones, a public address system, placards, and a dense crowd. The Police made nine arrests as they moved to disperse the crowd,” the report said.

Images from the scene went viral, including those of a woman shouting as officers held her hands behind her back. The optics of officers arresting women at a vigil for a woman alleged to have been killed by an officer caused an uproar.

The inspectors reviewed hundreds of documents and body-camera footage from the Police, and they conducted interviews with a number of groups.

The inspectors said that an officer was told “I hope you get raped”, another was punched in the face, and another had their baton taken. One police supervisor told the watchdog: “This felt like two events running at the same time, in the same place, with the crowd partaking in a protest whilst people on the outside (were) having a respectful vigil.”

The report also criticised the Met Police for some of their public statements after the vigil.

“The media coverage of this incident led to what many will conclude was a public relations disaster for the Metropolitan Police. It was on a national and international scale, with a materially adverse effect on public confidence in policing,” the watchdog said.

While the inspectors cleared the Police of wrongdoing, they said that “a more conciliatory response might have served the force’s interests better”.