Britain’s biggest police force has been backed over its handling of the Sarah Everard vigil, although inspectors said the event was a PR disaster that damaged public confidence.
Watchdog Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) found that Metropolitan Police officers were not heavy-handed and remained “calm and professional” as crowds gathered in south London on March 13.
Inspectors were called in by Home Secretary Priti Patel and London Mayor Sadiq Khan to examine the force’s actions after women who attended the event on Clapham Common were bundled to the ground and arrested.
The ugly scenes attracted an outpouring of criticism on social media, with Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey and Women’s Equality Party co-founder Catherine Mayer leading calls for Met chief Dame Cressida Dick to resign.
But the inspectors found that officers at the event 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.
They said it was unrealistic to hold a Covid-safe event on the common in light of the numbers of people who would attend and the short time available to plan the vigil.
Sir Thomas Winsor, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary, said: “Our civilian police model is precious. Officers are our fellow citizens, invested by the community to keep the community safe.
“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.”
While broadly supportive of the handling of the event, HMICFRS found that that there was insufficient communication between police commanders about changing events on the ground.
The Silver Commander was not told about the arrival of anti-lockdown campaigner Piers Corbyn, when a public address system was put up on the bandstand, or warned that the Duchess of Cambridge would be paying her respects.
The report said: “The Silver Commander learnt of her visit only when it was reported by Sky News.
“While we understand that it may be the tactic of protection teams to minimise pre-warning of VIPs’ movements, this is a matter of concern.”
The watchdog also found that the force should have adopted “a more conciliatory response” amid criticism after the event.
It said: “The media coverage of this incident led to what many will conclude was a public relations disaster for the Metropolitan Police.”
The report went on: “We heard the Metropolitan Police’s response to events described as ‘tone deaf’; we acknowledge that a more conciliatory response might have served the force’s interests better.”
Organiser Reclaim These Streets cancelled its vigil planned on Clapham Common on March 13 after accusing Metropolitan Police bosses of refusing to engage constructively.
But crowds attended anyway, leading to clashes between police and protesters who had gathered near the bandstand.
The inspectors said there was a tipping point at around 6pm, when around 1,500 people crowded together to listen to speakers.
Officers near the bandstand were outnumbered and faced abuse, including a female officer who was told by women that they wished she would get raped or murdered. Another constable was punched in the face, and one had their baton taken.
Matt Parr, who led the HMICFRS inspection team, 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.
“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.”
Ms Patel defended her decision to call for a review into officers’ actions at the vigil, saying the report revealed police “acted in the right way”.
The Home Secretary said it highlighted there were “a minority of individuals whose behaviours lead to some of the scenes that we saw”, adding that she was “absolutely appalled and sickened to see the level of violence that was being displayed to police officers… including violent behaviour towards female police officers”.
Ms Patel said it was important people did not “prejudge” the actions of officers “without knowing the full facts” and added that she stood by the police and knew how difficult the pandemic had been for them.
Jamie Klingler, from Reclaim These Streets, said she was “very disappointed but not surprised” at the watchdog’s findings and claimed that HMICFRS had focused on the original organisers’ inexperience rather than the actions of the police.
The group said it warned police that cancelling the event would make the situation worse because planned infrastructure would be lost.
She told the PA news agency: “Had this gone ahead the way it was supposed to go ahead there probably would have been four or five (news) articles, and it would have been a respectful vigil, we would have lit a candle.
“Our right to protest is a human right that they tried to take away from us, which then created all of the firestorm around it.”
Mayor of London Sadiq 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 March 13 and 14 have done further damage to this and show that much more needs to be done.”
Assistant Commissioner Louisa Rolfe from the Metropolitan Police said officers had spent considerable time asking people to go home before taking enforcement action.
She said: “This report makes clear the difficult circumstances officers faced as a peaceful vigil became a hostile rally.
“We welcome the considered scrutiny of this event which highlights how a snapshot may not represent the full context of the challenges police face.”