London’s Metropolitan Police was under heavy pressure Sunday to explain its actions during a vigil for a woman whom one of the force’s own officers is accused of murdering.
Hundreds defied coronavirus restrictions to gather and protest violence against women, but the event ended with clashes between police and those attending.
Home Secretary Priti Patel said scenes from Saturday’s vigil in south London were “upsetting” and she is seeking a full report on what happened from the Metropolitan Police. The capital’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, said the police response was “at times neither appropriate nor proportionate.”
Police were seen scuffling with some women at the event, and one woman was seen pinned to the ground by two officers. 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.
Many of those attending the vigil were already hostile to police because a serving Metropolitan Police officer, Wayne Couzens, was charged with the kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard a 33-year-old woman who vanished March 3 while walking home in London. Her body was found in woodland in Kent southeast of London, a week later.
The case has sparked a national outcry and a heated debate on women’s safety. Organizers had planned an official vigil at Clapham Common, 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.
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.”
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 was 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 10:30 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 is underway, police said Friday.