London police faced a backlash from the public and politicians on Sunday for their heavy-handed tactics in breaking up an outdoor vigil for a woman whose suspected killer is a police officer.
The disappearance of Sarah Everard, 33, as she walked home on the evening of March 3, has provoked a huge outpouring of grief and dismay in Britain at the failure of police and wider society to tackle violence against women.
Police had denied permission for a vigil on Saturday evening at London’s Clapham Common, near where Everard was last seen alive, citing regulations aimed at preventing the spread of coronavirus.
But hundreds of people, mostly women, gathered peacefully at the park in defiance of the ban to pay their respects to Everard throughout the day, including Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge.
Late on Saturday dozens of police officers marched into the crowd to shouts of “shame on you”. Scuffles broke out and officers dragged women away from the scene.
“Last night people were very, very upset, there was a great deal of emotion, completely understandably, and the police, being as they are operationally independent, will be having to explain that to the Home Secretary,” safeguarding minister Victoria Atkins told Sky News.
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Home Secretary Priti Patel, the minister in charge of policing, described footage of the incident as “upsetting”. The BBC reported she had ordered an independent inquiry after an initial police report left some questions unanswered.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan also said he was not satisfied with police chiefs’ explanation of the events and officers’ conduct must be examined.
An image of officers handcuffing a woman as she lay on the floor was widely shared and condemned on social media.
The woman, Patsy Stevenson, told LBC radio: “The main point that everyone was trying to get across when everything happened is that women don’t feel safe, they don’t feel safe walking down a street and that’s the bare minimum we should feel the freedom to do.” She said she was fined 200 pounds for breaching COVID regulations
Everard’s murder has resonated with woman across the country, prompting thousands to share on social media their experiences of violence and sexual assaults perpetrated by men, and vividly describe the daily fear they feel.
A steady flow of quiet mourners visited the site of the vigil on Sunday, placing flowers around a bandstand.
“I feel very angry that they think that they have the right to dictate how we mourn and how we react,” 24-year old student Lilith Blackwell told Reuters at the bandstand.
Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Helen Ball defended the officers’ actions and said they were faced with a very difficult decision. “Hundreds of people were packed tightly together, posing a very real risk of easily transmitting Covid-19,” she said.
A police officer charged with Everard’s murder appeared in court on Saturday. Police discovered her body on Wednesday in woodland about 50 miles (80 km) southeast of London. The court heard that her body was found in a builder’s refuse bag, and identified using dental records.