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London police under fire over "unacceptable" handling of Sarah Everard vigil

U.K. protests women's safety after brutal murder
British woman murdered walking home at night sparks debate on women's safety, sexual violence 03:02

The British government is calling for an investigation after police clashed with mourners at a vigil on Saturday night that was held in memory of Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old woman who went missing earlier this month and was allegedly murdered by a police officer of that same police force. Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick said Sunday that she is "more determined" than ever to lead the organization, and said she is not considering resigning. 

London Mayor Sadiq Khan and British Home Secretary Priti Patel both called on Sunday for an independent investigation into how the city's main police force shut down the vigil over coronavirus restrictions.

Patel said that "some of the footage circulating online from the vigil in Clapham is upsetting" and said she had asked the Metropolitan Police for a "full report on what happened" at the vigil. 

Patel added that she will ask the police watchdog, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary, a government body that assesses police forces, to look into the matter, according to BBC News.

In a statement, Khan echoed her call, saying that "scenes arising from the policing of the vigil were completely unacceptable." He added that he had spoken to the Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner at City Hall on Sunday to have them explain what happened, saying that he was "not satisfied with the explanation they have provided." 

Khan said he had also asked the Inspectorate of Constabulary for a full inquiry into what happened, and that he was also asking the Independent Office for Police Conduct, to investigate the actions of officers at the vigil.

Dick, the first female commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, said she agreed on the need for a "sober review" and defended how officers responded to the "really big crowd," BBC News reported. 

Everard, a marketing executive, was last seen on March 3 walking home from a friend's house in south London. She was found dead a week later and police confirmed that Wayne Couzens, an elite officer with London Metropolitan Police's diplomatic protection command, had been charged with kidnapping and murder. 

The official vigil planned on Clapham Common — near where Everard was last seen alive — was called off earlier on Saturday after a judge ruled "that attendance at a large gathering could be unlawful" due to coronavirus guidelines.

Mourners were encouraged to light candles at home in honor of Everard, and some came to pay their respects during the day at Clapham Common in a tribute to Everard's life, including Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, who Sky News reported made an unofficial visit. 

But by Saturday evening, several hundred mourners gathered anyway. Women from all walks of life joined the event turned rally as an act of solidarity, demanding safety from male violence.

Officers at the scene encouraged attendees to leave and the vast majority of people quickly did, according to Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Helen Ball.

"Regrettably, a small minority of people began chanting at officers, pushing and throwing items," she said. 

The vigil led to four arrests that police said were for public order offenses and breach of health regulations.

The officers' tactics have been questioned and criticized by activists and lawmakers from across the political spectrum after videos and images of women being pinned down and forcibly removed went viral online.

In reference to the police officer charged with Everard's killing, attendees shouted, "Arrest your own!" "Police, go home!"

In a statement on Sunday morning, Ball said that officers on the ground "absolutely did not want to be in a position where enforcement action was necessary," but "were placed in this position because of the overriding need to protect people's safety ... The pandemic is not over and gatherings of people from right across London and beyond, are still not safe," adding "We accept that the actions of our officers have been questioned."

Khan said he had received "assurances" last week from the Met that the vigil would be "policed sensitively." 

"In my view, this was not the case." Khan said. 

Many, including the leaders of the Liberal Democrat party, have called for Dick to resign from her post over her officers' conduct. Dick called it "fiendishly difficult policing" and said she didn't think "anybody who was not in the operation can actually pass a detailed comment on the rightness and wrongness."

In a video posted in Twitter, Patsy Stevenson, the woman who was pinned down by officers, urged the public to shift the narrative away from the police and back to what happened to Everard, by calling on the public to show their support at London's Parliament Square on Monday.

Memorial site at the Clapham Common Bandstand, following the kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard in London
Police detain a woman as people gather at a memorial site in Clapham Common Bandstand, following the kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard. HANNAH MCKAY / REUTERS

Everard's death has prompted a national outpouring of fury and reignited a national debate in Britain on women's safety and sexual assault. 

"I'm shocked and appalled about the news from the Met about Sarah Everard, and I think that the whole country will be united in that feeling for her friends, her family, and we'll share their shock and their grief," British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said. "Every woman should feel able to walk our streets in safety."

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