The last few days have been one of those desperately dark periods in the decades of policing history. The tragic murder of Sarah and the alleged circumstances of it, followed by the controversial scenes at Clapham Common together with apparent crass behaviour by a probationary police officer, saw both politicians and most of the media turn on the entire police service.
Footage of the scenes at the Clapham Common vigil spread like wildfire across, not just the UK, but the world with much subsequent attention focussing on one individual.
The red-haired aspiring actress was feted by TV and the press after footage of her arrest during Sarah’s vigil turned her into that apparent victim of police brutality.
Footage has subsequently emerged of her railing at a police officer who was politely telling her that the packed crowd during a pandemic wasn’t safe.
A Sky News item by respected journalist Mark White which looked at the timeline of events, shows her exhorting the crowd to defy police who had facilitated the earlier minutes silence and could have been criticised for so.
The previous day, I gave an interview to Ch5 News. As is usual, the broadcaster just used a segment of the interview but other issues were mentioned in the overview. The point I made during the televised segment was that, given the tragic nature of the vigil, police did not want to be seen handing out fixed penalty notice or indeed, especially in respect of male officers, manhandling women.
I frequently attend protests which have the potential to be contentious but decided not to travel to Clapham once Reclaim These Streets cancelled the vigil. I was later informed by two experienced, impartial observers, that there was, as expected, a steady stream of people bringing flowers, cards and candles to lay around the bandstand. As 6pm approached, the crowds increased and became quite dense around the bandstand as seen on Sky news and Crime Scene video footage.
At 6pm, the minutes silence was held and whilst police facilitated this act of remembrance, the police commanders were clearly concerned that the crowd was far too closely packed together. A local councillor appealed for the crowd to go home and many indeed left the common. The crowd however remained dense.
A combative presence?
Police may or indeed may have not been aware that the event was receiving significant attention from a women’s group known as ‘Sister’s Uncut.’ Their tweet on the day could be seen as summing up the groups intentions even though they would surely have been aware of the Covid regulations and the police reaction to any breach.
The vigil turned into a political protest with speeches being made from the bandstand which was now a stage. In anti-Lockdown protests together with block parties and raves, police usually move to disable the sound system. Police tried persuasion and footage shows officers in heated debate with protesters on the bandstand.
Eventually police decided enough was enough and began clearing the bandstand in a tactic that, as stated, was to grab, not just the attention of the UK but that of the world.
The concerns of male officers having to ‘manhandle’ female protesters, especially in these tragic circumstances, were fully realised yet it’s hard not to conclude that if a similar incident had occurred during an anti-Lockdown protest, the incident would have been described as ‘scuffles.’
Those complaining of ‘police brutality’ especially towards women appeared to forget or be ignorant of the fact that dozens of anti-Lockdown protesters had been arrested over recent months including a significant number of women, some of who ended up prone on the ground whilst being handcuffed.
Females pinned to the ground by police officers is a common sight across the UK on Friday and Saturday nights after indulging in drunken, unruly behaviour and this can be verified by the numerous police ‘fly on the wall’ documentaries that can be seen across several channels throughout the week.
The upshot of the disorder was that no-one troubled local A&E units and just four arrests were made. The red-headed female mentioned above was released after agreeing to provide her name and address in respect of a penalty notice. 26 officers were reported to have suffered minor injuries while police vehicles parked around Clapham Common were damaged.
Interestingly, at the time of writing, Deputy Commissioner, Sir Stephen House has defended the actions of officers when appearing before the London Assembly Police and Crime Committee; Sir Stephen referred to the abuse they suffered and the fact that they ‘believed they were doing the right thing.’
Was the Home Secretary culpable?
Much criticism of police followed but none of Home Secretary Priti Patel, just one of a posse of politicians who, with much of the media, turned on police. The Home Secretary could, as was suggested during the Channel 5 interview, have reinstated a Covid exemption for the event; protest exemptions were part of the original Covid regulations during the first Corona virus wave.
This would have meant that organisers would have submitted a risk assessment that, after discussions between the organisers, police and the local council, would have resulted in conditions necessary for a safe and dignified vigil.
Of course, such conditions would not have been a guarantee of a trouble-free event due to the presence of groupss as mentioned above but, in my opinion, the chances of any such disorder would have been dramatically reduced.
Home Secretary Patel had, just weeks ago, exhorted police to take firmer action against those who ignore Covid regulations and, as we know, the government mantra is that gatherings of people in defiance of those regulations costs lives. The virus, of course, will not grant an exemption for a vigil even in these most tragic of circumstances.
The Home Secretary has deputed the mistrusted and intensely disliked, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary to conduct an enquiry. They recently produced a report criticising ‘disproportionate’ racist stop and search without any significant reference to gangs or the death toll on London’s streets. It’s supremely ironic that just days ago they produced a report on the policing of public order events, a theme of which being that police were too soft with protesters.
Since the vigil on Saturday, hundreds of protesters have taken to the streets in open defiance of Covid regulations complaining of police brutality and the governments proposed bill that will increase police powers in regard to public order events.
The demonstrations have seen foul mouthed abuse directed at police, but just several arrests as police commanders clearly feel their hands have been tied due to the lack of support from across the political spectrum and savage criticism from newspapers from both the right and the left.
However, had police not taken action on that Saturday, they would have been widely criticised by those who have supported and complied with Lockdown regulations to prevent the disease overwhelming the NHS. Interestingly, a recent Sky News poll astonishingly given the media criticism shows majority support for police action.
In the aftermath of the Clapham bandstand incident, the most quoted and indeed apt phrase is ‘damned if they do, damned if they don’t.’
Finally, overlooked by the media is the fact that police across the country were shellshocked as news of Sarah’s murder and details of the alleged suspect became known. In the aftermath of tragedy officers were incandescent with fury at the apparent callous conduct of one of their own.
Fortunately, most of the public are sensible enough to realise that when police officers transgress its other officers who frequently bring it to notice, investigate or hand the case to the Independent Office for Police Conduct either of which may result in prosecution and/or dismissal of the officer or officers concerned.
When an awful incident such as the murder of Sarah occurs, it is worth remembering that police officers too have wives, partners, sisters, daughters, girlfriends and mothers and indeed police colleagues all of whom are vulnerable to predators.
And, of course, it’s the police who will do all in the power to obtain justice for the victim and their grieving family and friends; In most cases, thanks to determination, skill and empathy they succeed.
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