Britain’s most senior police chief defied pressure to resign as she dismissed “armchair” critics amid widespread outrage over officers manhandling women who were mourning the killing of Sarah Everard.
Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan police commissioner, was publicly rebuked by the home secretary, Priti Patel, and the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, for providing an unsatisfactory explanation of why police broke up a vigil for Everard in London’s Clapham Common on Saturday, near where she was allegedly abducted before being murdered.
An independent inquiry by the policing inspectorate has been ordered, with the report due in a fortnight. On Sunday evening, however, the prime minister and Patel let it be known that Dick retained their confidence.
As the commissioner clung to her job, demonstrators gathered on Sunday to protest against police and for the right of women to feel safe on the streets, marching from the Met headquarters in London to Parliament Square. This time, police stayed back from the crowds and allowed speeches and a vigil to go ahead.
Faced with a growing crisis and calls to quit, Dick gave a statement and interview that mixed empathy with defiance. She said concerns about the spread of coronavirus led officers to wade in on Saturday. As a woman, she would have gone to the vigil if it had been lawful, she said.
Dick said the the complex demands her officers faced were not understood: “They have to make these really difficult calls and I don’t think anybody should be sitting back in an armchair and saying, ‘Well, that was done badly’ or ‘I would’ve done it differently’ without actually understanding what was going through their minds.”
She insisted she was not considering resigning: “What has happened makes me more determined, not less, to lead my organisation.”
The Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, criticised the police response as “deeply disturbing”, while a government adviser on violence against women criticised the Met’s defence of its actions as being “from the handbook of abusers”.
Khan summoned Dick to City Hall to answer questions on Sunday, while Patel had demanded a report on the Clapham Common vigil, which her spokesperson said left “questions to be answered”.
Khan publicly criticised the commissioner, who he helped to appoint in 2017 as the first woman in the role, saying he was “not satisfied” by Dick’s account of why officers clashed with women at the vigil.
The mayor said he had asked and received assurances from the Met last week that the vigil would be policed sensitively. Khan, a former human rights lawyer, said these assurances had not been adhered to.
In a statement, the Home Office said: “The home secretary has read the report provided by the Metropolitan police and feels there are still questions to be answered. In the interests of ensuring public confidence in the police, earlier this afternoon the home secretary asked Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary to conduct a ‘lessons learned’ review into the policing of the event at Clapham Common.”
The London mayor went further, saying the scenes on Clapham Common were “completely unacceptable” and adding: “Last week I called on the government and police to work with the organisers of the vigil to clarify the law and find a way for it to take place legally and safely. On Friday a high court judge made clear there was a window to agree a way for a vigil to go ahead safely. I received assurances from the Metropolitan police last week that the vigil would be policed sensitively. In my view, this was not the case.
“I asked the commissioner and deputy commissioner to come in to City Hall today to give me an explanation of yesterday’s events and the days leading up to them. I am not satisfied with the explanation they have provided.
“I will now be asking Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary to conduct a full independent investigation of events yesterday evening and in previous days. I am also asking the Independent Office for Police Conduct to investigate the actions of police officers yesterday evening.”
Sources said Priti Patel was “personally upset” by images of women being grabbed by police at the candlelit vigil, which the Duchess of Cambridge had visited earlier on Saturday.
Boris Johnson said he was “deeply concerned” by the footage from the vigil. He will chair a meeting of the government’s crime and justice taskforce on Monday between Patel, Dick and the director of public prosecutions, Max Hill.
The prime minister vowed to “look at what further action we need to take to protect women and ensure our streets are safe”. A further 53,000 submissions to the consultation on the strategy for countering violence against women and girls have been made since it was reopened on Friday, the government said.
Sir Peter Fahy, the former chief constable of Greater Manchester police, told the Guardian the coronavirus laws voted through by parliament made the job of the police difficult: “If politicians are going to rush to judgement on the basis of mobile phone footage, having previously demanded police take firmer action breaking up gatherings, all police chiefs are in an impossible position.”
The force’s defence was described as being “from the handbook of abusers” by Nimco Ali, a government adviser on tackling violence against women and girls. Ali, a friend of Johnson’s fiancee, Carrie Symonds, also attacked “toxic masculinity” in policing around the world.
Writing on Twitter, Ali criticised a Met statement saying officers acted to enforce coronavirus laws. “The Met statement regarding last night is victim blaming BS right from the handbook of abusers. ‘You made me do it.’ ‘I had to do what I had to because I cared.’ Honestly, what is going on with this force?” she tweeted.
Later, Ali told Times Radio: “Honestly, it does come from the handbook of abusive men, where … you’re constantly blaming the victim for your act of violence, so rather than actually taking accountability, it was more like ‘Women should not have turned up.’ The police had the opportunity to choose how they reacted and they reacted in a terrible way and a disproportionate way.” She said she was speaking in her capacity as an activist, not as a government adviser.
Sarah Everard, 33, disappeared at around 9.30pm on 3 March while walking home in south London. Her remains were found in woodland in Kent, and a serving police officer, Wayne Couzens, has been charged with her kidnap and murder. Most other vigils to commemorate her memory across the country on Saturday passed off with little or no incident.