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Watchdog whitewash

Report denies cops at Clapham Common vigil were ‘heavy handed’

A POLICE watchdog has been accused of rubber-stamping the Met’s “shameful” handling of the Clapham Common vigil by concluding that officers acted appropriately.

Home Secretary Priti Patel called for a report following widespread outrage at the Metropolitan Police’s handling of the vigil, during which female mourners were tackled to the ground and arrested. 

The ugly scenes in south London followed the police’s decision to forcefully disperse the March 13 vigil in memory of Sarah Everard and other women lost to violence. Politicians described the scenes as “deeply disturbing” and “completely avoidable.” 

But today Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) said that officers had not been heavy-handed, did not act inappropriately and “did their best to peacefully disperse the crowd.”

Matt Parr, who led the inspection team, said that they found “nothing to suggest police officers acted in anything but a measured and proportionate way in challenging circumstances.”

“We concluded that the Met was right to recognise the need to be seen to be consistent in its policing of all events and gatherings,” he added. “They were, therefore, right to enforce the regulations — having gone to some lengths to persuade people to disperse.”

But Reclaim These Streets, the original organisers of the vigil, said the report was disappointing and demonstrated “institutional sexism running through the force.”

“We anticipated a fair and balanced inquiry and are instead being told not to believe what we saw and heard reported two weeks ago,” the group said in a statement.

“This inquiry is not representative of our experience with senior Met officials.

“The HMICFRS had a responsibility to begin rebuilding the trust between women and girls across the capital and the Metropolitan Police. The disregard for us as women organisers in the report is clear there is still institutional sexism running through the force.”

Reclaim These Streets was forced to cancel a socially distanced vigil on Clapham Common that evening after the Met refused to let it go ahead, citing Covid-19 restrictions. But more than 1,000 mourners turned up regardless.

It was called in memory of Ms Everard, whose body was found a week after she disappeared while walking home from a friend’s house in Clapham, south London, to Brixton. A serving Met officer has been charged with her kidnapping and murder.

Local Labour MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy said many of her constituents “will not agree that the police’s response to the event was appropriate or proportionate.”

“Far from offering public reassurance, it may heighten the impression that the police are not listening to women or respecting the right to protest,” she said. “This only further diminishes public confidence.”

Police monitoring group Netpol said: “The inspectorate has done what was expected of it and rubber-stamped the Metropolitan Police’s shameful conduct at the Sarah Everard vigil.”

Women Will Not Be Silenced, a campaign group formed in the wake of the vigil, likewise said it was “disappointed but not surprised that the Metropolitan Police will not face any consequences for abusing, manhandling and arresting women at the peaceful vigil.”

It said that the Met’s actions “directly triggered and directly contributed to mounting tensions” and that “the force used against the women arrested was not reasonable.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said he remained concerned about the events at Clapham Common but accepted the watchdog’s findings. 

But the Black Legal Support Group said testimony from its legal observers who witnessed the events on March 13 “entirely contradicts” the watchdog’s findings.

The organisation, which monitors policing of protests, claimed there were “continued threats of arrest” against observers. 

“We highlighted that at Clapham Common, the police behaved with heightened aggression, [including] forcibly pinning three women to the floor to make arrests,” the group said. “Other arrests were enforced by disproportionate numbers of officers, usually 15 to 20.”

HMICFRS’s report said that the Met’s understanding that all protests are banned under Covid-19 regulations was incorrect. 

However, the inspectors still concluded that the decision to disperse the vigil was “right” because it had to show consistency in how it had approached mass gatherings during Covid. 

This sparked further questions today about the police’s use of regulations to shut down protests during the pandemic. 

Lawyer Adam Vagner, who represented Reclaim These Streets in its legal bid against the Met, said: “If the approach was unlawful [because they didn’t understand some protest could be lawful], then the implications across this lockdown, and for the past year, are very troubling.”

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