Sarah Everard murder: London police under pressure after clashes at vigil

London’s Metropolitan Police force was under heavy and growing pressure to explain its actions during a Saturday vigil for murdered woman Sarah Everard.

One of the force’s own officers is accused of murdering 33-year-old Everard.

Hundreds defied coronavirus restrictions to gather and protest violence against women, but the event ended with clashes between police and those attending and many questioned whether the police force was too heavy-handed.

Folowing the clashes, up to 100 protesters gathered outside Scotland Yard, before marching to Parliament. Banners beign carried included messages “Believe all women” and “Txt me when you’re home babe”.

Police were seen scuffling with some women at the Satruday 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.

A woman who was pinned down and arrested by police at the Sarah Everard protest has called on activists to “rally the troops” for a larger demonstration outside Parliament on Monday.

Patsy Stevenson was pictured being held down on the Clapham Common bandstand before officers hauled her and other women into a police van.

Speaking after the Reclaim These Streets protest on Saturday night, Stevenson said the actions of the Metropolitan Police had been “disgraceful” and questioned their heavy-handed tactics.

The physics student at Royal Holloway, University of London and part-time actress called for another “bigger” protest in London’s Parliament Square at 5pm on Monday.

Social media posts of Stevenson’s handling by police spread quickly and were shared by celebrities such as Nigella Lawson and Sting.

“I was arrested by police for standing there,” Stevenson said. “I wasn’t doing anything, they threw me to the floor. I’m 5ft2 and I weigh nothing, and several police were on my back trying to arrest me.

“They arrested me in cuffs, dragged me away, surrounded by like 10 police officers and when we got in the van they said we just need your name and your address and we’ll let you go with a fine.

“So I don’t see the point of the arrest to be honest.”

When asked what demonstrators should do next, she said “bigger protest”, adding: “We need to rally the troops.”

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.

Sir Ed Davey, Liberal Democrats’ leader, upped the pressure by writing to Metropolitan Police Commissioner Dame Cressida, asking her to resign.

“This was a complete abject tactical and moral failure on the part of the police,” he told her.

“We therefore call on you to consider your leadership of the service and whether you can continue to have the confidence of the millions of women in London that you have a duty to safeguard and protect.”

However, Dame Cressida Dick, who is the first woman to head the force, said she was more determined than ever to lead the organisation.

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.”

She said that as big crowds gathered, officers needed to act to counter the considerable risk to people’s health.

Also defending the force’s actions, Assistant Commissioner Helen Ball said “hundreds of people were packed tightly together,” posing a very real risk of transmitting the virus. She added that officers had repeatedly encouraged those attending to leave, but “a small minority” of people chanted at police, pushing and throwing objects.

“We accept that the actions of our officers have been questioned,” Ball said. “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.”

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 national outcry and a heated debate on women’s safety.

Organisers 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.

Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London who has oversight of the Met, said the scenes were “unacceptable” and the police’s response was at times neither appropriate nor proportionate.

Khan said Sunday the police force had assured him the vigil would be “policed sensitively” but that this wasn’t the case. He added he is asking for a full and independent investigation into the force’s operation on Saturday as well as the actions of individual officers at the vigil.

Candidates in the race for the London Mayoralty at May’s elections turned their fire onKhan. Tory candidate Shaun Bailey said that if Khan was involved in any decision making on Saturday night “he has serious questions to answer”.

Laurence Fox, the leader of the Reclaim Party who is running for London Mayor, compared the police’s behaviour to the apparent lighter touch policing at demonstrations last year.

He said: “The public cannot maintain trust in a police force that is seen to be applying different enforcement protocols to different protests depending on the political motivation of the protest.”

Jamie Klingler, who organised 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.

The Duchess of Cambridge on Saturday paid her respects to Sarah Everard, as sources said she remembered “what it felt like to walk around London at night”.

The Duchess paid a private visit to Clapham Common in south London, to lay flowers near the spot where the 33-year-old marketing executive was last seen alive on March 3.

Sources said the Duchess felt Miss Everard’s story had touched a lot of people, and she wanted to show unity with them. A palace source said: “The Duchess wanted to pay her respects to Sarah and her family. She remembers what it felt like to walk around London at night before she got married.”

The daffodils the Duchess laid were from the garden at Kensington Palace.

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 was last seen walking home from a friend’s apartment in south London at about 10.30pm. on March 3.

Her body was found hidden in an area of woodland in Kent, more than 80km southeast of London, on Wednesday. A post-mortem examination was underway, police said Friday. – AP, additional reporting from the UK Telegraph

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