The pictures from last night’s vigil in memory of Sarah Everard are dominating the front pages. They are also probably circling the world. This is policing in London in the 21st century – heavy-handed, provocative, disproportionate, and lacking consent. The ‘consent’ point is important, being a foundational Peelian principle of ethical law enforcement in Britain. When the police cease to police with consent, they lose public trust and public approval of the presence – or even of their existence. When women are lighting candles and placing flowers in memory of one of their sex who was murdered; and when women are aware that a serving male police officer has been arrested in connection with that crime, one might expect the actions and behaviour of the police at such a vigil to be to maintain law and order while securing and maintaining public respect.
It isn’t possible to secure and maintain the respect and approval of the public without securing the willing cooperation of the public in the task of securing observance of the law. And for that cooperation to be secured, the police have to be seen to enforce the law without fear or favour: they can’t turn a blind eye to mingling environmentalists and unmasked football fans during a global pandemic, but then throw masked women to the ground while they’re mediating and mourning. They can’t be seen humbly to ‘take the knee’ out of respect for one cause, but then confront another cause belligerently face-to-face. If you do not bow down, you may be pushed.
And some police officers were reportedly pushed, and their response was to use physical force to deal with the women. They’ll say the force was proportionate and necessary to protect the public from harm – that is, the spread of Covid – which is the law as determined by Parliament. If the sight of masked women being thrown to the floor, handcuffed and carted away offends you, what did you utter when these restrictions on public protest were passed, because they did not exempt peaceful, Covid-compliant, socially-distanced protest.
And yet there is a sense this morning that the Met went too far, with demands for Met Commissioner Cressida Dick to resign. But if she should resign, why not the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who is responsible for policing in London? And if he should resign, why not the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, whose laws to restrict protest during the pandemic have empowered the police to act as they did. They are both eagerly expressing disquiet and demanding thorough reports from Cressida Dick, who has insisted she was just doing her job. “We absolutely did not want to be in a position where enforcement action was necessary. But we were placed in this position because of the overriding need to protect people’s safety”, tweeted Assistant Commissioner Helen Ball, while her boss is busy writing urgent reports. Perhaps they should all resign, having jointly ceased to recognise that the extent to which public/police cooperation can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.
The United Kingdom isn’t a police state, but this is what a police state looks like. And far from reassuring the public that this might have been a rare example of policing heavy-handedness, there is Bill before Parliament which would make this sort law enforcement more frequent. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill was published last week, and is due to be debated this week. It includes this sinister restriction on peaceful protest:
This is a ‘Minority Report’ approach to crime, where a protest may be banned if it may result in serious disruption or significant noise. It will be for a “senior police officer” to determine the meaning of ‘serious’ and ‘significant’ in any context, and to deal with the protester appropriately – probably by throwing him or her to the ground, handcuffing them, and carting them away to much Twitter outrage.
Has there ever been a successful protest which has not caused serious disruption? Has there ever been a successful protest which hasn’t made a significant amount of noise? Aren’t disruption and noise inherent to protest? Why is the British Government – a Conservative government – moving to ban the right to non-violent protest, which is a foundational constitutional freedom, and a cornerstone of liberal democracy?