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Sarah Everard protests vigil
Photography Melissa Arras

Police breached fundamental rights at Sarah Everard vigil, inquiry finds

MPs have confirmed that officers misinterpreted coronavirus laws, antagonised protesters, and used excessive force

In March, hundreds of people gathered in London’s Clapham Common to pay their respects to Sarah Everard, whose kidnap and murder at the hands of a serving Metropolitan Police officer sent shockwaves across the country earlier that month. In response to the peaceful vigil, the police used excessive force to break up and silence those in attendance, with male officers seen violently manhandling women.

Despite a police watchdog asserting that the Metropolitan Police “acted appropriately” at the time, a government inquiry has now confirmed that officers breached fundamental rights, misinterpreted coronavirus laws, antagonised protesters, and used excessive force. 

The report’s findings also apply to the behaviour of police in Bristol, who violently clashed with Kill the Bill protesters in March, as they demonstrated against proposed changes to the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts bill, which are set to restrict our right to protest.

In a shocking development, the government inquiry found that male police officers gained entry into two young women’s homes in Bristol while disguised as postmen, before realising the women had been wrongly identified as suspects. As reported by The Independent, one of the women was handcuffed while partially undressed and having a panic attack, while the other was threatened with tasers.

Speaking about the Sarah Everard vigil, the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), which conducted the inquiry, stated: “What could have been an organised, COVID-safe event was, as a result, an ad hoc gathering in an already antagonistic situation. The Metropolitan Police increased the risk to both officers and civilians. On several occasions, the force used by officers against attendees was not proportionate. Witnesses describe officers throwing women to the ground and holding them down.”

On the Bristol Kill the Bill protests, it added that the police “failed to distinguish between violent and peaceful protesters” and wrongly used force against journalists.

Although the report admits that there was “ambiguity” in the COVID restrictions at the time – meaning protests were neither explicitly permitted nor banned – it declares that both the Metropolitan and Avon and Somerset Police “failed to understand their legal duties in respect of protest” or “conduct a proper assessment of the proportionality of their actions”.

The APPG also directly condemned the protest laws proposed in the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill, saying seven clauses should be removed because they “unnecessarily expand police powers”.

“The police must not become the enforcement agency of the state against those who choose to publicly and collectively call for change – political, economic, social, or environmental,” said Geraint Davies, the chair of the APPG.

“Parliament must protect our freedoms,” he continued, “and reject attempts to increase police power and restrict our right to peaceful protest. The police should help to facilitate the expression of police protest and not drive opposition underground.”

Last month, Patsy Stevenson – the woman who was pictured being pinned down and arrested by two male police officers at the London vigil – said she was preparing to launch a legal challenge against the Met unless they withdraw the fixed penalty notice they imposed on her. Stevenson was charged £200 for breaking coronavirus restrictions by being “present at a large-scale gathering”.

On June 8, Metropolitan Police officer Wayne Couzens admitted to the kidnap and rape of Sarah Everard. He also accepted responsibility for her death, but didn’t enter a plea on the charge of murder. 33-year-old Everard disappeared on March 3 while walking home to Brixton from Clapham – her body was formally identified on March 12 after being found in Kent woodland. Couzens was charged with her murder that same day.

Her killing sparked mass protests around the country, with thousands calling for an end to male violence against women, as well as police brutality. Grassroots activist group Sisters Uncut led the London-based protests. Speaking to Dazed in March, the organisation said: “This is not a case of one bad apple. It is structural and it echoes the institutional violence against women and non-binary people that we experience everywhere: in the streets and in the systems that claim to protect us”.

In response to the outrage, the government proposed sending plain-clothes police officers to clubs as bars, and to increase police patrols as people leave at closing time. MPs also reacted by making misogyny a hate crime. Unsurprisingly, both decisions were met with widespread criticism, with people asserting that more police powers is not the answer to male violence against women.

Look back at Dazed’s guide to six organisations to support in the fight against gender-based violence here.