Sarah’s vigil touches a nerve

Was the police response too heavy-handed?

Growing concern over heavy-handed policing

The police and the tactics of policing are both under intense public scrutiny at this time. No one disputes that policing can be, and frequently is, a tough job, with the pandemic doing nothing to make it any easier. But the heavy-handed treatment meted out by officers at the Clapham Common vigil for Sarah Everard in March, caused huge disquiet amongst the public and led to calls for the resignation of Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dick. She said the following day that she was not considering her position, but admitted “None of us would have wanted to see the scenes we saw at the end of yesterday’s event.”

Even Home Secretary Priti Patel said that lessons had to be learned. Learning lessons? Still? This was a large team of highly trained officers observing what was initially a peaceful and respectful gathering. Although officially unlawful because of the temporary coronavirus rules, it was, nevertheless, a vigil, which only turned nasty because it appears the police were more concerned with sticking rigidly to the law than adapting to an extremely sensitive situation. Now there are widespread concerns about future planned police tactics and the increased powers proposed in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, known by its numerous opponents as the #PoliceCrackdownBill.

The controversial legislation is making its way through Parliament, although massive public protest has delayed its journey. A Government plan to protect women by putting plainclothes police officers in bars and nightclubs around closing time has been described as “bizarre” and “frightening” by opponents, including women’s groups, charities and MPs. And there is huge opposition to the new bill, particularly the sections relating to increasing police powers to curb protests and the right to demonstrate. A new public
nuisance law that would make causing “serious annoyance or inconvenience” a crime punishable by up to ten years in prison, has provoked widespread outrage, with the civil liberties group, Liberty, describing the bill’s parliamentary progress as a “dark stain on our democracy.”

Green MP Caroline Lucas called it “one of the most dangerous, anti-democratic pieces of legislation in recent times”, and in an impassioned Commons speech opposing the bill, Shadow Justice Secretary David Lammy said that “by giving the police the discretion to use these powers some of the time, it takes away our freedoms all of the time.”

What our surveys show

At the beginning of March, we surveyed our readers on their attitudes towards policing during lockdown.
In answer to our first question, a slim majority of 51% thought that all forms of public protests, vigils and gatherings should be banned whilst restrictions are in place.

A significant minority, 34%, said that such protests should not be banned, and 15% said they didn’t know. However, the tough line taken by police at the Sarah Everard vigil touched a nerve, and in a further survey a week after the event almost a third of those questioned, 33%, felt the police had used “excessive” force, with numbers higher amongst women, 38%, than men 28%.

Overall, 41% said “appropriate” force was used, with the male female split at 47% to 35%. A large number, 26%, said they didn’t know. Clearly there is growing concern about overzealous policing of corona laws. When we asked the question in January, 31% said “Yes” with 51% saying “No” and 15% answering “Don’t know”. Asking the same question in March, the “Yes” replies had grown to 42%, with the exact same percentage saying “No” and 16% said “Don’t know”.


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