Case Studies

Police defend response to Sarah Everard vigil

by Mark Rowe

Police on the ground were faced with a very difficult decision, during Saturday’s Clapham Common vigil by women after the disappearance and death of Sarah Everard, said Met Police Assistant Commissioner Helen Ball.

Police absolutely did not want to be in a position where enforcement action was necessary, she said: “But we were placed in this position because of the overriding need to protect people’s safety.

“Hundreds of people were packed tightly together, posing a very real risk of easily transmitting Covid-19. Police must act for people’s safety, this is the only responsible thing to do. The pandemic is not over and gatherings of people from right across London and beyond, are still not safe.

“Those who gathered were spoken to by officers on a number of occasions and over an extended period of time. We repeatedly encouraged those who were there to comply with the law and leave. Regrettably, a small minority of people began chanting at officers, pushing and throwing items.”

The rank and file police body the Police Federation of England and Wales (PFEW) pointed to the impossible situation faced by police. National Vice Chair Ché Donald acknowledged that the Sarah Everard case and the gathering to pay their respects stimulated a wider public debate around the personal safety of women in public spaces and associated violence directed against them. He said: “The ensuing issues that have arisen following police attendance at the vigil for Sarah Everard has highlighted the complexity of policing in the current climate when the rights of individuals to pay their respects, have to be balanced with that of protecting the public from an escalating situation and enforcing the law.

“Policing during lockdown is a no-win situation for front line police officers trying to protect the public, they are damned if they do take action and damned if they don’t. Ultimately front-line officers have become pawns in a political situation.

“There is a need to reiterate the call for clarity around Covid-19 regulations to avoid further confusion over laws and rules when lockdown measures are lifted. The Government’s mixed messages added to the escalation of events on Saturday.”

Speaking before the vigil, Lana Adamou, a lawyer at the civic rights campaign group Liberty said that safe, socially distanced demonstrations are perfectly possible, and it is the duty of the police to facilitate them, not block them. “The current restrictions should be and can be interpreted compatibly with our rights to free expression and assembly enshrined in the Human Rights Act. Threatening prohibitively heavy fines, with the risk of criminal conviction if challenged, for arranging this demonstration is the latest example of blunt powers being used heavy-handedly by police, and our rights being unjustly restricted.

“What’s also concerning is that there are further planned attacks against our right to protest in the long-term, not just in lockdown. This week the Government revealed its new Policing Bill, a wide-ranging piece of legislation which includes numerous opportunistic attacks on our rights, including the right to protest.”

The second reading of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is in the House of Commons today and tomorrow. David Lammy, Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, said Labour would be voting against. He said: “We are calling on the Government to drop its poorly thought-out proposals and instead work with Labour to legislate to tackle violence against women which is forcing so many across the country to live in fear. As well as to deliver the important areas that are long promised, like tougher sentences for attacks on frontline workers and increased sentences for terrorists.”

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