Freedom of Information: News

Sarah Everard vigil: Police under fire over failure to keep meeting records

Police accused of being ‘allergic to public scrutiny’ after openDemocracy finds no notes taken at meetings before vigil for murdered woman

Jenna Corderoy
Jenna Corderoy
2 August 2021, 12.01am
Police were criticised for how they handled the vigil
Anna Watson / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Police chiefs have been accused of presiding over a “culture of obsessive secrecy” after it emerged that no minutes were taken during a series of key meetings in the hours before officers controversially broke up a vigil for Sarah Everard in London.

The vigil, which took place on Saturday 13 March, was intended to allow people to pay their respects to Everard, who was murdered by a police officer. But it ended with women being arrested and pinned down by police, with some saying they felt “violated”.

MPs have said that the police’s use of force at the vigil breached “fundamental rights”, but the Met Police was cleared of any wrongdoing by an official investigation. The inquiry’s report was published two weeks after the vigil.

Now, an investigation by openDemocracy has raised serious questions about transparency over meetings held by police chiefs shortly before the event.

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The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) held a regular meeting with chief constables about pandemic regulations on Friday 12 March, the day before the vigil. They discussed the police’s stance on the planned vigil for Sarah Everard, but no minutes were taken of what was said or agreed on.

In a subsequent meeting on the same day — between the NPCC, the policing minister and others — it was agreed that the vigil and others planned around the country could not go ahead under pandemic restrictions.

A short briefing memo was produced, but again, no minutes of the meeting were made by the NPCC, while the Home Office refused to confirm whether any record was kept.

The NPCC said that these conversations "took place by phone and the meeting that was arranged with chief constables was not minuted".

The day after the vigil, amid widespread criticism of the police’s behaviour at the event, the NPCC’s chairman Martin Hewitt tweeted: “We hear the outpouring of grief and anger […] Tomorrow I’ll bring all police chiefs together to discuss what more we can do to better protect women.”

The NPCC has now admitted that no minutes were kept of this third meeting either, saying that it was “intended as a general conversation”.

But Kat Hobbs of Netpol (The Network for Police Monitoring) said that the lack of transparency “raises serious questions” and that the lack of notes taken by police “hardly seems credible”.

“There is a growing awareness of the culture of obsessive secrecy within the police, and the Met Police in particular seem to be allergic to public scrutiny,” Hobbs told openDemocracy.

“Without transparency, how can we evaluate how the police are using their powers?”

The government has since been accused of using a controversial new policing bill, currently going through parliament, to “substantially increase the powers of police to restrict peaceful protest”.

Police claim vigil was ‘hijacked’

In a separate development, the Metropolitan Police has also been accused of telling a “barefaced lie”, after claiming the vigil was “hijacked” by activists.

In a report seen by openDemocracy, which the Met sent to the government, the force claims the event “moved from a vigil to a rally” when women linked to the feminist group Sisters Uncut “took over the bandstand area”.

Responding to the report, Sisters Uncut said this was “devastating, upsetting, blood-boiling stuff from the Met, drenched in hypocrisy and self-preservation”.

“The implication that the crowd was somehow turned at a certain point is also a barefaced lie, except that when the police muscled in after dark by their own admission, obviously the grieving women in attendance were frightened and calling out to protect one another,” said Sisters Uncut.

The briefing memo circulated to police chiefs after the NPCC’s meetings on 12 March, said: “Police must take a consistent approach to policing the [COVID-19] regulations and cannot waive the regulations for any one type of gathering.”

The memo adds: “This issue has been discussed with the Policing Minister this morning who is supportive of our position. In support of this, the Home Secretary will also be issuing a message to the public later today that will discourage people from gathering in person.”

Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, said the memo shows that “police were unlawfully implementing a ban of their own making on one of the most cherished human rights in a democracy”.

“When police strip citizens of their rights and liberties outside the rule of law, that is some way towards the establishment of a police state,” she said.

‘Informal’ meetings

The NPCC refused to comment on its failure to keep records of the meetings in which the Sarah Everard vigil was discussed. But openDemocracy understands that minutes have never been taken of any of its regular meetings held to discuss the policing of COVID-19 regulations. These meetings are considered to be informal by police chiefs.

The Met’s assistant commissioner, Louisa Rolfe, told openDemocracy: “I stand by the actions of those officers who policed the events on Clapham Common.”

She said: “The Met is open to public scrutiny and we are transparent in the policing of public order events. The work of officers during events is routinely scrutinised by a number of bodies including select committees, HMICFRS or by Independent Advisory Groups – to name just a few.”

Last summer, openDemocracy revealed how the head of the Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick, wrote to the home secretary, Priti Patel, in December 2019 saying that the Extinction Rebellion protests provided a "much-needed opportunity” to give police greater powers to curb protests in the UK.

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