London, Mar 14 (PTI) Scotland Yard on Sunday defended its actions with Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick fighting back calls for her resignation after a perceived heavy-handed policing of a vigil in south London, where a 33-year-old woman went missing and was later found murdered.
The murder of Sarah Everard, who disappeared on her way back home from a friend's place last week, has sent shockwaves across the UK as a serving Metropolitan Police officer appeared in court charged with her murder this week.
An unofficial gathering in memory of the victim ended up in scuffles with the police and four arrests as the Met Police acted to break up the crowds under the current coronavirus lockdown rules.
“What has happened makes me more determined, not less, to lead my organisation,' said Met Police Commissioner Dick.
While agreeing to a need for a 'sober review', she defended how her officers responded to the 'really big crowd that gathered'.
'Quite rightly, as far as I can see, my team felt that this is now an unlawful gathering which poses a considerable risk to people's health,' she said.
Her comments came as UK Home Secretary Priti Patel was said to have decided on the need for an 'external view' on the policing decisions taken on Saturday after she received a report from the Met Police on the operation.
She has reportedly asked the Chief Inspector of Constabulary, who has the statutory responsibility for the inspection of police forces, to conduct an independent review, a move backed by London Mayor Sadiq Khan.
Scenes of clashes between people, a majority of them women, gathered at the vigil and police officers on Saturday evening were shared widely across social media and resulted in outrage from different quarters, including Khan 'urgently seeking an explanation' from the Met Police Commissioner.
In a statement, Patel said: “Some of the footage circulating online from the vigil in Clapham is upsetting. I have asked the Metropolitan Police for a full report on what happened”.
“My thoughts remain with Sarah’s family and friends at this terrible time,” said the minister, who had earlier launched a major survey on “Violence Against Women and Girls” in the wake of the incident to gather public feedback on further legal provisions necessary to make the country’s streets safer for women and girls.
Earlier, Met Police Assistant Commissioner Helen Ball sought to defend her officers' actions, while expressing solidarity with the victim's friends and family, saying officers held their own candlelit vigil outside New Scotland Yard headquarters in central London.
“Police must act for people's safety, this is the only responsible thing to do. The pandemic is not over and gatherings of people from right across London and beyond, are still not safe,” said Ball.
“We repeatedly encouraged those who were there to comply with the law and leave. Regrettably, a small minority of people began chanting at officers, pushing and throwing items. After speaking with officers, the vast majority of people quickly left. Four arrests have been made for public order offences and for breaches of the Health Protection Regulations,” she said.
An officially planned “Reclaim These Streets” vigil in memory of Sarah Everard at Clapham Common in south London had been cancelled after a court ruled against it due to the coronavirus restrictions in place on large gatherings. However, an outpouring of emotions saw hundreds gather at the park to pay floral tributes, including Kate Middleton – the Duchess of Cambridge, on Saturday.
“The Duchess wanted to pay her respects to Sarah and her family. She remembers what it felt like to walk around London at night before she got married,” a Kensington Palace source told ‘The Daily Telegraph’.
Jamie Klingler, from Reclaim These Streets, said it was 'deeply saddened and angered' by the police's actions and criticised officers for 'physically manhandling women at a vigil against male violence'.
The Met Police has said that a review will be carried out to see if 'lessons can be learned'.
People had been encouraged to light a candle on their doorstep in memory of the victim and among those who took part in the doorstep vigil were UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his fiance, Carrie Symonds, who lit a candle and placed it in front of No. 10 Downing Street in London.
Johnson tweeted that he was 'thinking of her family and friends', adding: 'I will do everything I can to make sure the streets are safe'.
Earlier on Saturday, Met Police officer Wayne Couzens, 48, appeared at Westminster Magistrates' Court in London charged with Everard's kidnap and murder and has been remanded in custody.
Everard disappeared when walking home to Brixton from Clapham in south London on March 3 and her body was found in an area of woodland in Ashford, Kent, around 100 km from London. PTI AK RS CPS