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Four arrests does not constitute brutal or insensitive policing

Selected social media clips appears to have prompted politicians to unfairly condemn the policing of Saturday's south London vigil says Chris Hobbs.

Four arrests does not constitute brutal or insensitive policing

Date - 15th March 2021
By - Chris Hobbs
8 Comments 8 Comments}

On Friday afternoon, the day before the now controversial vigil, I was sitting in a bench in Clapham Common giving an interview to Channel 5 News which concerned the aforementioned vigil.

As is usual, whilst I was able to make all the points I wished, only a segment was actually used later that day. This was that segment:

“The last thing front line police officers will want is pictures, images of them (officers) having to enforce current regulations in terms of Covid; they really don’t want to be handing out fixed penalty notices; they don’t want to be, especially if they’re male officers, maybe even manhandling those who are participating individually.’

Other points made during the interview, which were included in the overview, concerned the question of a protest exemption under Covid regulations and the undeniable fact that police officers, not just in the Met but across the country, were shellshocked by the sequence of events that resulted in the tragic death of Sarah.

I’m sure I was not alone in the police community, in feeling a sense of relief when I heard that the organisers had called off the event. I felt, however, that the explanation that they were unable to reach an agreement with the police was rather disingenuous due simply to the fact that Covid regulations do not permit such gatherings. It is hardly within the gift of the Met to cast aside regulations which, in essence, have been approved by Parliament.

I normally attend contentious public order events as an observer but on this occasion, I felt that whilst people would turn up and pay their respects with flowers and candles, there would be no mass gathering which would concern police. How wrong I was.

Fortunately, two individuals I have come to know well as seasoned observers and who, it must be stressed, have criticised the policing of past public order events, did attend.

Anyone looking at TV news bulletins, social media footage together with reading news reports would assume, wrongly, that the police brutally disrupted the entire vigil.

In fact, the early stages of the vigil were policed primarily by female officers and, as has been well publicised, the focal point of the vigil, namely the bandstand, was visited by the Duchess of Cambridge.

Interestingly, some women attending were visibly distressed by the abuse directed against police that could be clearly seen on some of the sympathy cards which accompanied the flowers. One lady was in tears as she apologised to two female officers in what was an emotional exchange.

The bandstand saw comings and goings throughout the afternoon but the crowds appreciably thickened as six o’clock approached. At six, unhindered by police (some critics may say facilitated) a minute’s silence was held and impeccably observed.

Before the silence commenced, police were actually cheered by the crowd when an anti-Lockdown activist who accompanied Piers Corbyn angered those present by launching a Covid linked rant from the bandstand before being escorted away from the scene by officers.

At the conclusion of the minute’s silence many of the crowd left. A loudspeaker system thanked the crowd, and, despite the lack of social distancing for a short period, the remembrance tribute to Sarah appeared to have fulfilled its purpose.

The situation however was to change. Activists commandeered the bandstand, which was, to all intents and purposes a stage and through the PA system began a series of clearly political speeches, the contents of which were partially directed against police. As can be seen by unedited footage, the crowd around the bandstand made no attempt to socially distance.

Additional police were now on hand; however, they were not dressed in protective ‘riot’ clothing. By this time officers were also moving around the crowd engaging with them in terms of simply asking them to go home.

The flashpoint came when police decided enough was enough and moved on to the bandstand area with the intention of clearing it of its militant and very determined occupants. This is a tactic which is used at regulation breaking events be they block parties, raves or anti-Lockdown protests.

The result, as can be seen from the footage, was little more than push, pull and shove. The concerns of male officers having to ‘manhandle’ female protesters, especially in these tragic circumstances, were fully realised yet it’s hard not to conclude that if a similar incident had occurred during an anti-Lockdown protest, the incident would have been described as ‘scuffles.’

At one stage police withdrew from the bandstand area and it’s not known whether this was de-escalating the situation or to protect their carriers from damage. Footage shows a protester damaging a police carrier and then running from police to the cheers of the crowd.

Blood on the streets?

When the news of Saturday night’s issues began to filter through, the impression given was that we would be seeing multiple casualties and multiple arrests. Those viewing social media must have had visions of local A&E departments being overrun (which may happen as a result of protests abroad but simply doesn’t happen here) and police custody suites being swamped with prisoners (that can happen).

In fact, an incident that has reverberated, not just across the UK but around the world, resulted in just four arrests; for that blame or thank, depending on your point of view, social media.

It was clearly those few selected social media clips, as so often happens with police, which convinced the leaders of the opposition parties, London’s mayor, Priti Patel and now Boris Johnson, to effectively condemn police actions.  Perhaps this says rather more about those individual politicians than, it does about officers attempting the thankless task of enforcing ‘life saving’ Covid regulations agreed by those self-same politicians .

Priti, exemptions and getting tough

It would be fair to say that Home Secretary Priti Patel was having some success in building bridges with an embittered police service still suffering from the hostility and contempt shown by Theresa May.

All officers would have been only too well aware that just recently Priti Patel made it clear that she wanted firmer enforcement of Lockdown restrictions which in turn led to more arrests, heavy fines and a zero tolerance of anti-Lockdown protests footage of which incidentally shows numerous protesting, handcuffed women being taken away struggling, screaming and shouting.

The Home Secretary would also have been kept fully appraised of every key aspect that emanated from the tragic death of Sarah. This would have included being informed about the vigil and a realisation that this would probably result in breaches of Covid regulations.

She would have been kept informed regarding the Reclaim the Street group’s wish to discuss the potential vigil with police and the initial warm response from the Met that was later rescinded, presumably on the instruction of a higher authority.

It therefore begs the question as to why she didn’t consider reintroducing the protest or similar exemption for the vigil. Protest exemptions were introduced for the first Lockdown and involve the organisers submitting a risk assessment which forms what is in essence, the basis of an agreement between the organisers, police and local council; this, in turn, results in certain agreed conditions being imposed on those attending such as social distancing, finish times, stewarding/marshalling and so on.

These weren’t reintroduced for subsequent events during further periods of restriction, presumably because agreed conditions were ignored by those participating in the Lockdown protests. However, the Home Secretary could and many will argue, should have considered a reintroduction on this occasion.

The Met have frequently been accused of dual or two-tier policing especially by anti-Lockdown activists. If police had allowed those organising Sarah’s vigil to illegally have their own way then the allegations of two- tier policing would have sent twitter into overdrive; this with a much- trumpeted anti-Lockdown protest scheduled for this Saturday.

Now Priti Patel is asking the police inspectorate to investigate the actions of police during Saturday’s vigil. The irony here is that in their recently published 160-page report into public order policing the inspectorate strongly intimated that, in the wake of certain protests notably those of Extinction Rebellion, police were too soft in their dealings with protesters. 

Does the virus show compassion at vigils?

We are constantly being told by government and the NHS that gatherings are dangerous and will result in Covid deaths due to the high rate of transmissibility yet there seems to be a school of thought suggesting that police should have ‘let this (the vigil) slide’ due to the undoubted poignancy of the event.

The crowds that were present in and around the bandstand would also have been using the narrow platforms at Clapham Common station and the ‘tube’ trains themselves.

Indeed, even by facilitating the period of silence at 6pm when the crowds were at their most dense, police could be accused of neglecting their primary duty of keeping people safe.

The phrase ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ seems most apt here. It was a policing operation which enabled all to pay their respects despite the restrictions and the presence of hostile elements. That this was accomplished with just four arrests, hardly seems to justify national and international headlines.


After the well-publicised events of Saturday evening, activists organised another ‘Reclaim the Streets’ protest on Sunday beginning at 4pm. A crowd which I initially estimated at around 2,000, gathered outside Scotland Yard. I revised that estimation as the protesters moved to Parliament square where speeches were made and where some speakers bordered on hysterical.

The crowd then marched up Trafalgar Square where there was more singing and chanting before returning along Whitehall and stopping at Downing Street where TSG officers in front of the gates were heckled. Then it was back to Parliament Square.

In Parliament Square, few police officers made a fruitless attempt to ‘engage’ with protesters and were rewarded with abuse. One police officer tried to explain exactly what had occurred yesterday but was shouted down.

Clearly some intelligence had been received which indicated that Churchill’s statue was at risk as a few officers were earlier deputed to protect the statue.

They were surrounded and subjected to a prolonged period of sustained ‘close quarter’ abuse. The protesters, many of whom were young, didn’t quite pluck up the courage to physically attack the officers, the majority of whom were female which again was somewhat ironic. The officer’s reaction was impeccable and I doubt would have been replicated by officers from most continental forces.

A return to Scotland Yard amidst more chants of f*ck the police, which had been periodically heard throughout the afternoon brought my ‘day out’ to an end. A return home saw no respite in that an interview with LBC at 10pm loomed. I was able to get all the relevant points across but the presenter was clearly not convinced; and no, I did not think Cressida Dick should resign over the issue.

As I finished drafting this piece and retired during the early hours two ‘lightbulb’ moments occurred to me; that several thousand foul mouthed protesters were able to roam around the streets of London in gross contravention of current ‘life saving’ Covid regulations while the tragedy of Sarah appeared to have been largely forgotten and replaced by sheer hatred towards all police officers.

Chris Hobbs is a retired Met officer who worked in Special Branch

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Ordered by:
ASG - Fri, 19 March 2021

How many politicos used the phrase “ deeply concerned “ .... it’s such disingenuous cack, political/legal buzzwords for the MSM....