There is a pincer movement on the Metropolitan Police in the wake of Saturday’s events on Clapham Common. On the one side of it is the anti-police left, powered by its adolescent reflex against authority. On the other is the anti-lockdown right, driven by its desire to minimise Covid restrictions, if not end them altogether.
They are far from the only interests with agendas. Labour has Priti Patel in its sights. The Conservatives – let’s face it – have Sadiq Khan. Those anti-lockdown campaigners’ real target is not so much the police as the Government, whose preferred instrument for maintaining public order during this pandemic was a special Coronavirus Act, not the Civil Contingencies Act (mistakenly, we believe).
Then there are the radical groups, such as Sisters Uncut. Patel has asked Sir Tom Winsor, the Chief Inspector of Constabulary, to carry out a “lessons learnt” review. Khan has asked him for a “full independent investigation” – and referred the Met to the Independent Office for Police Conduct.
The Liberal Democrats have called on Cressida Dick to resign. Keir Starmer hasn’t joined them. Boris Johnson is to chair a meeting of the Crime and Justice Taskforce today to explore what action needs to be taken to ensure women’s safety. He says that “like everyone who saw it I was deeply concerned about the footage from Clapham Common on Saturday night”.
He is right to be and, on the face of it, the police made the wrong decision. Dick says that the Coronavirus Act puts the police in a “very difficult position”. That’s true – but inherent in her words is the recognition that the police retain room for operational manoeuvre, which they exercised by eventually resolving to bar the vigil, a decision upheld in court.
Given the circumstances of Sarah Everard’s terrible death, the Met would have been wiser to let the vigil go ahead – rather than, by barring it, open themselves to the likelihood of pictures of women being, literally, manhandled by police officers being splashed all over new and old media.
Then again, the ban itself is one thing and the way the event was policed another. Dick has a point when she complains of armchair critics – and footage isn’t everything, as the Prime Minister would acknowledge. If you support an investigation, it follows that you should wait for it to report before reaching a conclusion about the events you want it to probe.
In the event of a protest, the police must balance its lawfulness, the right to free speech, dangers to public order, and safety – that of those present and their own. To describe the decisions that must follow as tough is an understatement. Here are some from recent history, and our take on them, for what it’s worth.
Should the Avon and Somerset Police have intervened in Bristol before Black Lives Matter protesters threw a statue in a river? Yes: that was a breach of public order. Should the Met have sought to disperse last June’s Black Lives Matter march in London by force? No: the game would not have been worth the candle, though officers should not, repeat not, have “taken a knee”.
Should the police have broken up a London anti-Covid event in September and made 16 arrests? That’s harder one to call, since the point of the rally to many of those present was to defy the Coronavirus restrictions. Should the various police crackdowns on Extinction Rebellion protesters have come much faster? By and large, yes.
This background and these questions bring other interest groups into play – those with views on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the Second Reading of which will be debated in the Commons today. The Government says that its measures would empower the police to take a “more proactive approach” to managing “highly disruptive” protests.
It is necessary for MPs to probe the Bill’s details today, just as it will be for them to press Ministers next week, when the Commons is due to vote on maintaining the Coronavirus Act and present restrictions. Elsewhere, the Chief Inspector of Constabulory will begin his investigation into what happened on Clapham Common in full.
But there is a danger in all this procedure of looking at policing the wrong way round. The key question is not only what powers the police should have, but who should hold them accountable for how these are used. Consider the long list of people and institutions we named earlier.
In the case of the Met, we have Priti Patel and Sadiq Khan – the former being accountable to Parliament for England and Wales’ police forces; the latter being the police authority for the Met, required to set strategic direction for the force and to hold the Chief Constable to account. Meanwhile, Dick, as Chief Constable, is responsible for the force’s operational effectiveness.
That’s the post-New Labour version, in London, of the old tripartite system. But Patel and Khan won’t be alone in holding Dick to account: as we have seen, there may be as many as three inquiries into Saturday’s events, involving not only the Chief Inspector of Constabulory but the Independent Office for Police Conduct, too.
In Scotland, there is a Safer Communities Directorate in Scotland. In Northern Ireland, the Department of Justice. In England and Wales, a mass of Police and Crime Commissioners – the Coalition’s own tweak to the tripartite arrangement. Then there is the College of Policing, a product of Theresa May’s time at the Home Office, which sets “standards for key areas of policing”.
It is clearly essential to separate the strategic and the operational: one doesn’t want the Home Secretary seizing day-to-day control of how neighbourhood policing operates in Sin City or Chuffnell Poges. But how to sort the one from the other isn’t always easy. For example, if a Chief Constable deprioritises, say, catching violent criminals in order to record “hate crimes”, is his decision operational or strategic?
The question isn’t academic. Three years ago, Sara Thornton, then the Chair of the National Police Chiefs Council, complained that officers should not have to deal with reports of misogyny, calling for them to focus instead on “core policing”, and adding that hating women should not be a criminal offence. In the aftermath of Sarah Everard’s death, some will disagree.
In a nutshell, the police and crime commissioner system, designed to hold local forces to account more effectively than the old local councillor-based police authorities, hasn’t delivered as intended. With some notable exceptions, some of whom write regularly for this site, they have tended to gang up with the local Chief Constable, calling for “more resources”, rather than vigorously holding them to account.
If voters want the police to give making the streets safer for women greater priority than (say) recording hate crimes, or monitoring traffic for offences, or enforcing the laws on class C drugs – as we believe many would, if forced to make choices – they need better means than they currently have to so direct them.
The current trend is towards bigger, amalgamated forces. That is far removed from the Conservative vision, back in opposition, of local sherrifs responding to voters’ demands. It may be that this horrifying death will drive a re-evaluation, especially on the hard left, of the need to deter and punish violent crime. But until or unless policing control is localised further, we fear little will come of it.