Britain’s top police chief came under heavy pressure on Sunday after officers handcuffed mourners at a vigil for a woman who was murdered after setting out to walk home, in a case that has sparked national fury about violence against women.
Officers scuffled with some members of the hundreds-strong crowd that gathered despite coronavirus restrictions for a candlelit tribute late Saturday close to the spot where 33-year-old marketing executive Sarah Everard disappeared on March 3.
Reclaim These Streets — which initially organised the event in south London’s Clapham Common park — condemned the actions of officers ‘physically manhandling women at a vigil against male violence.’
Social media footage showed police restraining and handcuffing some mourners, leading to an outpouring of criticism from across the political spectrum.
Both home secretary Priti Patel and London mayor Sadiq Khan said they had asked for explanations from the Metropolitan police over how the vigil was handled.
And Liberal Democrats leader Ed Davey called for Metropolitan police chief Cressida Dick to resign, having ‘lost the confidence of millions of women in London’.
But the force defended its officers, saying that police ‘must act for people’s safety.’
‘Hundreds of people were packed tightly together, posing a very real risk of easily transmitting COVID-19,’ said Assistant Commissioner Helen Ball.
‘Regrettably, a small minority of people began chanting at officers, pushing and throwing items.
‘We absolutely did not want to be in a position where enforcement action was necessary. But we were placed in this position because of the overriding need to protect people’s safety,’ she added.
Four arrests were made for public order offences and for breaches of coronavirus regulations.
The murder of Everard, who vanished after setting out to walk home from a friend’s flat, has shocked the country and brought discussion around women’s safety to the fore once again.
Wayne Couzens, 48, a serving officer in the Metropolitan Police’s elite diplomatic protection unit, appeared in court earlier on Saturday charged with kidnap and murder following his arrest at his home in Kent, southeast England. The victim’s body was discovered in a nearby wood.
Organisers had cancelled the vigil after police outlawed it because of COVID-19 restrictions, but hundreds still turned out, with tensions overspilling as Saturday night fell.
Mourners shouted ‘shame on you’ at police, with tensions running high as a man arrested in connection with the murder is an officer.
In the hours following the vigil, rage mounted with pressure groups and politicians condemning police actions.
Opposition Labour MP Harriet Harman condemned the ‘terrible’ scenes at Clapham in a tweet, adding: ‘Met mishandled vigil plan from the outset. They should have reached agreement.’
Labour leader Keir Starmer called the scenes ‘deeply disturbing’ and also criticised the way the vigil was policed.
Caroline Nokes, the conservative chair of the women and equalities committee, said she was ‘truly shocked at the scenes from Clapham Common — in this country we police by consent, not by trampling the tributes and dragging women’.
Other joined in a virtual tribute, including prime minister Boris Johnson and his partner, who lit a candle for Everard.
‘I cannot imagine how unbearable their pain and grief is. We must work fast to find all the answers to this horrifying crime,’ he tweeted.
‘I will do everything I can to make sure the streets are safe and ensure women and girls do not face harassment or abuse.’
Organisers of the vigil said they hoped to raise £320,000 ($445,000) for women’s causes.
Earlier on Saturday Prince William’s wife Kate visited the bandstand at Clapham Common, which has turned into a shrine for the victim.
Everard had visited friends in Clapham and was returning home to Brixton, about 50 minutes walk away, when she disappeared around 9:30 pm.
The case has caused a political fallout, with MP Jess Phillips this week reading out the names of 118 women murdered last year.
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