U.K.’s Johnson Moves to Defuse Anger Over Police Behavior
Protesters calling for greater public safety for women after the death of Sarah Everard, gather at Parliament Square in London on March 14. (Photographer: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

U.K.’s Johnson Moves to Defuse Anger Over Police Behavior

Boris Johnson moved to ease tensions over police handling of a vigil to support a woman who was murdered in London, after a second day of protests that drew hundreds of people despite the coronavirus lockdown.

The U.K. prime minister’s effort is a response to controversy over the death of 33-year-old marketing executive Sarah Everard, who disappeared on March 3 after walking through a park at night in south London.

An off-duty police officer has been charged with her abduction and murder. Anger over the crime was amplified by images of male officers pinning down female demonstrators at an event Saturday meant to draw attention to violence against women.

“The death of Sarah Everard must unite us in determination to drive out violence against women and girls and make every part of the criminal justice system work to protect and defend them,” Johnson said in a statement released by his office late Sunday, adding he was “deeply concerned” by footage from the vigil.

Demonstrators poured into Parliament Square and around the Metropolitan Police headquarters on Sunday afternoon, calling for more action against violence. They also objected to legislation up for debate in parliament on Monday that would give the police greater powers to break up protests.

Johnson will also chair a meeting of the government’s crime and justice task force -- bringing together ministers, senior police and prosecutors -- on Monday to discuss how to “make sure our streets our safe,” his office said.

A survey by polling company YouGov released Monday suggested the public are split over the police’s handling of the vigil, with 40% of respondents saying it should have been allowed to go ahead, while 43% said it should not. Some 47% said Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dick should not resign, versus 23% who said she should.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan and Home Secretary Priti Patel both called for an independent investigation of the Metropolitan Police’s handling of the incident, which turned chaotic when officers tried to disburse the crowd for violating social distancing rules. Khan met with senior police officials on Sunday but said in a tweet that he “was not satisfied with the explanation they have provided.”

Dick rejected calls for her resignation and said she shared the anger of protesters. She hit out at “armchair” critics of the police, who she said were making difficult decisions under pressure.

“What happened to Sarah appalls me,” Dick said Sunday. “I’m the first woman commissioner of the Met. Perhaps it appalls me, in a way, even more because of that. What has happened makes me more determined, not less, to lead my organization.”

Johnson’s office said the government already is:

  • Recruiting 20,000 extra police officers over three years
  • Reviewing how the criminal justice system deals with rape and sexual offenses
  • Pushing a domestic abuse bill that will crack down on cases of non-fatal strangulation and revenge porn
  • Survey the public about experiences with violence

On Monday, people continued to stream into a park in the Clapham neighborhood of London, leaving flowers and cards and lighting candles in Everard’s memory at a bandstand that was the focal point of the Saturday gathering.

The proposed legislation would restrict the use of noise at public gatherings and impose new controls for those assembling around the parliament building. It includes measures that would strengthen protection for women against sexual offenses and would force those convicted of rape to serve more of their sentence in jail.

Ministers moved to restrict protests after demonstrations by Black Lives Matter and the environmental group Extinction Rebellion in previous years snarled traffic and disrupted commuter trains. In more recent months, police have been asked to break up other gatherings banned to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Lawmakers in the Labour opposition said they’d oppose the policing bill.

“In the 20 schedules, 176 clauses and 296 pages of the Conservatives’ Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, ‘women’ are not mentioned even once,” said David Lammy, the Labour lawmaker who speaks on justice. “This is a missed opportunity.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.