In 30 years in the force, I’ve policed riots and royal weddings. Here’s what I would have done at the Sarah Everard vigil
A lone woman is murdered, allegedly by a policeman, but does that justify a mass gathering in the midst of a pandemic that’s killing thousands and shattering the economy? And was the Met’s response to it right or wrong?
The questions arising from the weekend’s vigil for murdered Sarah Everard are many. Did officers foul up by intervening to make arrests? Why did the mayor of London and the leaders of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties howl in outrage at apparent police heavy handedness?
With more than 30 years in policing, I have worked at every kind of vigil, demonstration, riot or public order event there is. I have done so as a constable, a sergeant and as an inspector leading officers on the ground. I’ve been the officer commanding several hundred at an event, and a chief superintendent running operations from the Scotland Yard control room. From football matches to Notting Hill carnivals and major funerals, I’ve done it all. Whether that’s putting my helmet on little children and laughing with parents at street parties, or baton-charging football hooligans.
I have some thoughts for you on recent events, some that might enrage you, and others that might surprise you.
Three days ago, we were shocked to see a supposedly silent vigil to honour a woman murdered on our streets turn into a media frenzy, with photographs of policemen manhandling women and men attending the event. But did the vigil get hijacked by others with an ulterior motive?
What exactly happened last Saturday night on London’s Clapham Common? Was the police action justifiable? Was it wise to intervene at an event where emotions were so high – particularly as the alleged suspect for the murder of Sarah was a police officer?
Should the police have used greater resources at the outset to stop any sort of gathering in the midst of the pandemic, or should they have just looked away and allowed those attending to break lockdown rules, placing all of us at more risk?
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How do we contrast police actions last week with those of officers at Black Lives Matter demos last year, where officers took a knee in the face of demonstrators, allowed statues to be desecrated and even ran away in Whitehall when confronted? Double standards at work?
How do the police actions compare with the efforts to break up illegal raves, where hundreds of officers in shields and riot helmets have been forced to confront violence to enforce lockdown rules?
We do not know all of the facts, but we know some.
We know that a number of female activists tried to arrange a vigil to remember an innocent woman who was murdered. Also, that the police asked them not to hold the ceremony on the basis that a large gathering would risk spreading coronavirus and break lockdown regulations.
No official vigil was organised, but nevertheless hundreds of mainly young women and others arrived in the late afternoon on Clapham Common to lay flowers and light candles. Despite many broken regulations, the police initially did nothing. Their presence was very light, consisting of only a few women officers, deployed to avoid exacerbating any feelings against men or male officers.
As night fell, however, the dynamics of the crowd changed, as it always does. The darkness, the torches and flash photography cause people to become disoriented and less rational, allowing emotion to overcome common sense.
At about this time, a man stepped onto the bandstand to make a speech to the huge, densely packed crowd around it. By now what had been a silent vigil had turned into a demonstration. The crowd started to put pressure on the bandstand, trampling on the hundreds of bouquets of flowers laid in Sarah’s memory.
At this time, it appears that a decision was made to send more officers to the bandstand to move the crowd back. They were dressed in normal uniforms with flat caps – a very moderate form of dress for a public order event.
ACAB, said the placard – but they’re not
As the police attempted to direct people away from the bandstand, it is clear that they came under a lot of abuse, both verbal and physical. Some 26 officers were injured or spat upon. They used their right to self defence to push back; they could do nothing less about the threat of being surrounded by hundreds of hostile people, some not wearing masks properly in the midst of a pandemic.
The net result was that four people were arrested. Hardly an example of the police going over the top. There is not one image of police punching, kicking or batoning anyone. No shields, riot helmets, dogs or horses, which you would expect if police were breaking up an event and facing resistance. There’s plenty of video, however, of people chanting abuse and shrieking at the police. And yes, some evidence of offices pushing people out of their interpersonal space.
In the midst of such confrontations, four were arrested; if people resist police requests to move, they should not be surprised to end up on the ground. Some demonstrators may even have engineered these confrontations, knowing that the images they create are lapped up by a sometimes gullible media.
As if by magic, demonstrators produced a large banner with ACAB on it, or ‘All Coppers are Bastards’. Others produced spray paint and damaged police vehicles. Both are evidence that some people came to the vigil intent on mischief. Never mind that the squad cars are made unserviceable, and therefore can’t be used the next day, perhaps to go to the aid of a domestic violence victim.
Let me answer some of the questions I posed above.
As a police constable, I do not accept being pushed, spat upon or even assaulted while doing my job. I would always keep demonstrators distanced from me, especially after dark when things happen fast. I don’t want to be kicked in the goolies, stabbed or have corrosive liquid thrown at me by someone who swiftly disappears into the dark. Get in my face and I will move you, especially if you might give me the virus.
If I am there as a sergeant or inspector, I will look after my officers and make sure we dominate the immediate surroundings. Whether by verbal communication or by upping the ante, depending on how the crowd is moving and behaving. It’s a delicate judgement in the dark, where rumour and emotion spread fast.
Perhaps I might withdraw my officers, so as to avoid what could become hand-to-hand fighting.
What would I have done if I had been in overall command on the ground on Saturday, watching the flowers laid in honour of Sarah being trampled by an increasingly agitated crowd? All of whom are now breaking government regulations over the virus?
A few urgent thoughts would be rushing through my head. Will I be criticised for allowing a crush to develop around the bandstand, possibly resulting in injuries or even deaths, and for not protecting the flowers? Will I be admonished for ignoring a flagrant breach of lockdown rules? We all remember Hillsborough (the 1989 football stadium tragedy that left 96 fans crushed to death), especially if you are a public order commander. Safety – for all concerned, including officers – is paramount.
And what of the commissioner’s strategic commanders back at HQ? Should they have even allowed such a mass gathering to occur in the first place? Swirling through their minds will have been considerations like what they did or did not do at last year’s BLM gatherings, or at the many illegal raves that have taken place during lockdown.
Inevitably, the spotlight has been shone on Met Commissioner Cressida Dick. She is the first woman in history to hold the position. She’s assisted by 20-plus senior officers and a further 30 or 50 chief superintendents, who have delegated authority to manage incidents whatever they might be.
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An impromptu gathering on Clapham Common – albeit one so much in the public eye and connected to a member of her force – is rightly below her pay grade. She leaves such things to be managed by her team. Running a multi-billion-pound operation, with 50,000 staff dealing with millions of calls for service a year, ecompassing terrorism, football matches, murders, hundreds of thousands of ordinary crimes etc., means she has to delegate.
If she had been briefed on the vigil, which she probably was, she might perhaps have said to an assistant commissioner, “Keep your eye on it.” That conversation would have gone through at least two more levels before a chief superintendent or superintendent who has managed such events for perhaps 25 years would have said, “Leave it to me, boss.” I believe public order command is headed at present, for the first time, by a female chief superintendent.
We will all have a view on these events; it depends on how we view the threats to life from the pandemic, versus the desire to express our emotions honouring a woman’s life.
As for Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, the Labour leader Keir Starmer and the Lib-Dems’ Ed Davey, they have all been in politics for a long time. Sure, their outrage aimed at the police will win a few cheap votes from young females and those with chips on their shoulder about the force. But all their comments will have done is add fuel to the fire, damage the confidence of some people in the police, and further demoralise those very officers who time and time again come to the rescue of women facing violence on the streets or in their homes. With the result that we are all a bit less safe.
Maybe the police could and should have done something differently on the night. If so, you know more than me about keeping the public order.
There is a lesson for the police bosses in this unseemly affair, however, one that they continually fail to learn. Social media and relationships with the media generally are powerful tools in delivering messages and influencing outcomes. It is high time that the Met directed more efforts to these communication channels.
A proactive and early campaign using social media, TV, radio and bloggers might have persuaded many people to stay away from the event at Clapham. Especially if the talking heads had been young junior female officers sharing their experiences of attending domestic violence cases and corona callouts. Get the police side of the story out there.
As for those who turned up at the vigil, whether earlier in the day with flowers or those agitators later on with their signs, loudhailers and spray paint, I have a simple message: You all should have stayed at home.
I have lost two good friends to the virus and millions have lost relatives.
How dare you risk more of us with your emotional outpouring and break lockdown rules? From everything that I have read about Sarah Everard, I doubt she would have wanted that.
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