LONDON – London's police commissioner on Sunday defended her officers' actions and said she didn't intend to resign, after coming under heavy criticism for the way police treated some protesters during a vigil for a woman whom one of the force's own officers is accused of murdering.
Hundreds defied coronavirus restrictions Saturday to protest violence against women and remember Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old London resident whose disappearance and killing prompted a national outcry. But the vigil ended with clashes between police and those attending, and many questioned whether the police force was too heavy-handed.
Home Secretary Priti Patel said scenes from the vigil in south London were “upsetting." The capital's mayor, Sadiq Khan, said the police response was “at times neither appropriate nor proportionate.” Both said they were not satisfied with the force's report of events and were seeking a full and independent investigation.
Police were seen scuffling with some women at the event, and one woman was seen pinned to the ground by two officers. Video widely shared on social media showed a woman was pulled up from the ground by officers who then shoved her from the back. Several women were led away in handcuffs as other attendees chanted “Shame on you” at police. The force later said four people were arrested for violating public order and coronavirus regulations.
On Sunday, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick, who is the first woman to head the force, said she was personally appalled by the attack on Everard and she was more determined than ever to lead the organization. She said she fully understood the strength of feeling in response to Everard's case, but stressed that Saturday's vigil was an unlawful gathering and officers had been put in a “very difficult position" trying to police a protest during a pandemic.
She said that as big crowds gathered, officers needed to act to counter the considerable risk to people's health. She added that she welcomed a review into her force's operations.
Many of those attending the vigil were already wary of police because a serving Metropolitan Police officer, Wayne Couzens, was charged with the kidnap and murder of Everard, who vanished March 3 while walking home in London. Her body was found a week later.
The case has sparked a heated debate on women’s safety in the public space. Organizers had planned an official vigil at Clapham Common, a park near where Everard was last seen alive, but were forced to cancel the event because of COVID-19 restrictions. A huge crowd turned up Saturday nonetheless.
Khan, London's mayor, said Sunday the police force had assured him the vigil would be “policed sensitively" but that this wasn't the case.
Jamie Klingler, who organized the canceled “Reclaim These Streets” event, blamed police for denying women their right to have a silent vigil in the first place. The force got the angry reaction Saturday because they refused to facilitate a peaceful rally, she alleged.
“I think we were shocked and really, really sad and to see videos of policemen handling women at a vigil about violence against women by men ... I think it was painful and pretty triggering to see,” Klingler said Sunday.
Patsy Stevenson, who was pictured pinned to the ground by two officers during Saturday's clashes, said she was considering whether to challenge the 200-pound ($278) fine she received.
“We were there to remember Sarah, we all felt deeply saddened and still do that it happened, so I brought a candle with me but unfortunately wasn’t even able to light it to put it down because the police turned up and barged their way through," she told LBC radio.
Emotions were still running high Sunday, as several hundred demonstrators gathered outside London police headquarters. The crowds, which were peaceful, then marched to Parliament and laid down on the ground for a minute of silence to remember Everard.
Couzens, 48, appeared in court Saturday for the first time. He was remanded in custody and has another appearance scheduled Tuesday at London’s Central Criminal Court.
The Metropolitan Police has said it is “deeply disturbing” that one of its own is a suspect in the case. The force said Couzens joined its ranks in 2018 and most recently served in the parliamentary and diplomatic protection command, an armed unit responsible for guarding embassies in the capital and Parliament.
Everard, a marketing executive, was last seen walking home from a friend’s apartment in south London at about 10:30 p.m. on March 3. Her body was found hidden in an area of woodland in Kent, more than 50 miles southeast of London, on Wednesday. A post-mortem examination was underway, police said Friday.