Sarah Everard vigil report strongly defends police's use of force

The police inspectorate has delivered a sweeping exoneration of officers’ manhandling of women mourning the killing of Sarah Everard, instead denouncing politicians who criticised the force.

The clearing of the Metropolitan police triggered jubilation in policing circles with demands for “armchair critics” to apologise after the scenes from Clapham Common led to widespread dismay.

Matt Parr, the lead inspector for the report, told the Guardian over half his team were former officers but insisted the inquiry, ordered by the home secretary following outrage, was rigorous and fair. He said of the Met’s controversial use of force: “They were absolutely right, they did not have a choice.”

The criticism of the Met led to calls for the force’s commissioner, Cressida Dick, to resign, after her explanation of why police used force was found to be unsatisfactory by both the home secretary, Priti Patel, and the London mayor, Sadiq Khan.

Inspectors said the Metropolitan police had “acted appropriately” when dealing with the event in Clapham Common, although also concluded it had been a “public relations disaster” for the force whose statements had been “tone deaf”.

Images of police officers manhandling female protesters on Saturday 13 March led to widespread condemnation from public figures. One women’s group said Tuesday’s report treated them “as silly little girls”, while other critics also stood by their views that the policing of the vigil had been heavy-handed.

The findings of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) were that most present at the vigil were dignified and peaceful but that after 6pm the mood changed.

The crowd became more dense, and the Met feared the risk of coronavirus spreading had increased. It also had uppermost in its mind the need to be consistent in how it policed protests, which at the time were not exempt from pandemic laws restricting outdoor gatherings to two people.

The criticism of the vigil’s policing came swiftly from Labour leader Keir Starmer, the London mayor, and Tory MPs. Parr said the home secretary was right to voice concern and order an inquiry, but the report’s conclusion was seized on by police unions, who feel their members are criticised too easily.

John Apter, chair of the Police Federation, which represents rank and file officers, said public figures who made “inflammatory, derogatory, and insensitive” comments about the policing of the event should “publicly apologise” in wake of the HMICFRS report.

Ken Marsh, chair of the Metropolitan Police Federation, attacked “outrageous behaviour” from “armchair critics” including senior politicians from all parties and said they should be ashamed and apologise.

Marsh said: “The kneejerk 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.”

Parr said that on Tuesday morning he had discussed with both the home secretary and policing minister how abuse of police officers had become almost normalised. The report cites instances of female officers being targeted for abuse about rape.

One officer told inspectors: “I distinctly remember multiple women coming up to me throughout the incident, wishing I was raped, with one female saying words to the effect of: ‘I hope you get raped, so you know what it’s like’.”

Parr stressed the vast majority at the vigil were “respectful and dignified” and the former rear admiral said: “Police officers were models of restraint.

I take my hat off to the Met, they tried for an hour to persuade people to go home.”

In the report, Parr said: “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.”

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey was among high-profile figures calling for Met chief Dame Cressida Dick to resign following the ugly scenes, calls she has resisted.

Following the publication of the HMICFRS report, Davey rejected the findings: “We all saw the appalling scenes at the Clapham Common vigil. Police officers were ordered to manhandle and arrest women, just for exercising their rights to peaceful assembly. “In the circumstances, we simply do not agree that the Met was right to treat this vigil as if it was just any other large gathering during the pandemic, and therefore to try to stop it going ahead.

“This was a peaceful vigil to mark the death of Sarah Everard. Women rightly wanted to show their sorrow for her death, and their anger that too many women are killed by too many men.”

Bell Ribeiro-Addy, Labour MP for Streatham, whose constituency includes part of Clapham Common, said: “This report will offer little reassurance to my constituents, those who attended the vigil and others across the country who watched video footage of the disgraceful scenes.

“It may well heighten the impression that the police are not listening to women, or respecting the right to protest. Far from offering reassurance to the public, it is only likely to further diminish public confidence.

I look forward to further reviews.”

The report was commissioned by the home secretary, Priti Patel, who, along with the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, publicly rebuked the Met commissioner for providing an unsatisfactory explanation of why police broke up the vigil.

Khan said that he accepted the report, but added: “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 and 14 March have done further damage to this and show that much more needs to be done.”

The group Reclaim These Streets, formed of local women, had originally worked with police to organise a peaceful and short vigil to honour Sarah Everard. They said local police had initially been willing to work together, but had then said their “hands were tied” and they had to ban the event because of coronavirus restrictions.

Everard, 33, vanished after leaving a friend’s house in Clapham, south London, at about 9pm on 3 March. She is believed to have walked through Clapham Common on her way home to Brixton, a journey that should have taken about 50 minutes.

During that walk she talked on the phone to her boyfriend.

Six days after she was last seen, the Met announced on 9 March that a serving officer had been arrested over her disappearance.

PC Wayne Couzens has been charged with her kidnapping and murder and is scheduled to stand trial later this year at the Old Bailey in central London.

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