MPS acted appropriately at the Sarah Everard vigil, HMICFRS report finds

Officers from the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) acted appropriately at the vigil held in memory of Sarah Everard on Clapham Common, a new inspection by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) has found.

Mar 30, 2021
By Tony Thompson
People clashing with police as they gather in Clapham Common, London, after the Reclaim These Streets vigil for Sarah Everard was officially cancelled. Pic: PA

The MPS was found to be justified in adopting the view that the risks of transmitting Covid-19 at the vigil were too great to ignore when planning for, and policing, the event. However, the report highlighted that was insufficient communication between police commanders about changing events on the ground.

HMICFRS said that public confidence in the MPS suffered as a result of the vigil, and that given the impact of images of women under arrest – which were widely disseminated on social media – a more conciliatory response after the event might have served the MPS’s interests better.

Sir Thomas Winsor, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary, said: “My thoughts are with Sarah Everard’s family and friends, who are suffering the most unthinkable pain.

“The commissions I received from the Home Secretary and the Mayor of London to inspect the Metropolitan Police’s handling of the vigil for Sarah Everard on Clapham Common have been fulfilled. This has been a rapid but detailed inspection.

“Public confidence in the police is critical. It is therefore important that there has been an independent, objective, evidence-based inspection to provide public reassurance, which we provide today.

“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.”

Matt Parr, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary, who led the inspection team, said: “On behalf of everyone who worked on this inspection, I send our heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of Sarah Everard, who have suffered an unimaginable tragedy.

“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.

“A minute’s silence was held for Sarah at 6pm, after which a peaceful and sombre vigil turned into something else – a rally with dense crowds and little or no social distancing. We concluded that the Met was right to recognise the need to be seen to be consistent in its policing of all events and gatherings. They were, therefore, right to enforce the regulations – having gone to some lengths to persuade people to disperse.”

After reviewing hundreds of documents, body-worn video from police officers at the vigil and other media, and conducting interviews with the police, vigil organisers and politicians, the inspectorate found that:

  • Police officers at the vigil did their best to peacefully disperse the crowd;
  • Police officers remained calm and professional when subjected to abuse; and
  • Police officers did not act inappropriately or in a heavy-handed manner

HMICFRS found that an event on Clapham Common could have taken place because the right to protest remains even during the pandemic. However, it said planning a Covid-friendly event at Clapham Common was not realistic because of the high number of people expected to attend and the limited time available to plan the event.

The inspectorate concluded that, in this case, the MPS’s decision to prioritise consistency with its approach to policing other mass gatherings during the Covid-19 lockdown was right.

Ken Marsh, chair of the Metropolitan Police Federation, said: “The outcome of this report comes as no surprise. We said on the very evening that politicians of all parties should make themselves aware of all the facts before rushing to judgement and making statements.

“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. This was outrageous behaviour from those who should know better and we trust as elected officials and we now call on these politicians to make themselves accountable and to apologise to our hard-working colleagues for the damage they have done.”

A statement issued by the MPS in response to the release of the report said: “We are determined to tackle violence against women and girls and hope this report goes some way to build confidence that our officers are working tirelessly to keep Londoners safe. The circumstances of the disappearance and death of Sarah Everard have left us all deeply angry and shocked. Our thoughts remain with her family and friends at this very sad time.

“Police must act to protect the public and we welcome the conclusions of today’s report that acknowledges the complexity of policing an event such as this in unprecedented times. The vast majority of those who attended the vigil throughout the afternoon did so in a dignified, respectful and lawful manner. However, the atmosphere changed after 6pm and officers faced considerable abuse and hostility from a small minority of the crowd. The Inspectorate concludes that officers did their best to peacefully disperse the gathering and demonstrated patience and restraint. It finds their actions were not inappropriate or heavy-handed.”

Assistant Commissioner Louisa Rolfe said: “We are outraged at Sarah’s death which has left us even more determined to tackle violence against women and girls. This report makes clear the difficult circumstances officers faced as a peaceful vigil became a hostile rally. We must always be consistent in our policing of public events. I am extremely proud of the restraint, compassion and professionalism officers showed during a fast-moving and challenging situation.

“They spent considerable time engaging, explaining and encouraging before considering any enforcement action. Officers acted thoughtfully, sensibly and proportionately with the best interests of Londoners at heart given we remain in a public health crisis. We welcome the considered scrutiny of this event which highlights how a snapshot may not represent the full context of the challenges police face.”

John Apter, national chair of the Police Federation of England and Wales, said: “The Clapham Common vigil was an incredibly sensitive event and a natural reaction to the tragic death of Sarah Everard. People wished to pay their respects, but this took place during a pandemic while the country was in lockdown.

“The actions of my colleagues at this vigil were harshly criticised by ill-informed people. These included some politicians and media, and others in positions of authority and influence. The HMICFRS review into the actions of the Metropolitan Police show these same people were too quick to make inflammatory, derogatory and insensitive comments about police officers, with limited knowledge and context.

“They inflamed the situation and created further tension. They also undermined the incredibly difficult and complex job police officers do, especially in these types of situations. In addition, they further undermined the confidence the public have in policing. Police officers were unfairly vilified and the comments about their actions were wholly disproportionate and damaging. Those responsible should reflect on their behaviour and publicly apologise to my colleagues.

“It’s important that we don’t forget why people felt so strongly about attending the vigil in the first place. My thoughts and those of my colleagues are with Sarah Everard’s family and friends at this incredibly difficult time.”

 

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