The tragic murder of Sarah Everard this week has had a seismic impact on society and policing. The circumstances of her death and the occupation of the man charged with her murder has stunned all of us.
There are so many issues from this case but I want to discuss the two most pressing.
The events on Clapham Common have brought into sharp focus the difficulties of balancing freedom to assemble and protest with the substantial restrictions that have been passed by Parliament to manage the public health crisis.
The police cannot work with organisers to facilitate a gathering that is unlawful under the COVID legislation; it would be a serious breach of our role. I believe people who feel the police should have done this at the weekend are wrong. The rules have varied during the pandemic but are very clear and parliament has restricted gatherings to prevent infections of COVID.
You will see we advised local groups we could not do this which led to events being cancelled in Coventry and Birmingham. A responsible step given the health crisis.
However when feelings are high, ranging from a vigil on women’s safety, a Black Lives Matter protest, a Kissan Farmers’ rally, or a Rangers title win, people will still chose to gather and they will all feel they have a good reason for this.
When these happen this leaves the police to use their discretion on what to do balancing the risk of COVID infection, public safety, public consent, the resources available and our legal obligations. The police cannot and should not be expected to make choices based upon the merits of individual events. All gatherings pose the same infection risk.
The choices made are increasingly judged by public opinion. We are challenged for being either “woke” and over tolerant or cracking down too hard. It is difficult to get this right in everyone’s eyes as people bring their own views and values to the merits of each case.
I make no comment on the Met’s response at Clapham Common as it is subject to review by the HMICFRS. I do however think Parliament need to review the regulations governing public assembly under COVID regulations so they are quickly realigned with the freedoms expected in the country on protests.
This cannot now wait until June.
Much emphasis is being placed on police discretion to navigate these matters. I think this has been conducted by policing, in the main responsibly, however the law needs realigning quickly and irreversibly as we move out of the acute phase of the pandemic.
This is the real issue at play. Not every woman has experienced domestic abuse or rape. Every woman has experienced some form of sexual harassment, unwanted attention or behaviour that has made them feel unsafe. Sarah’s death has made people come forward with their stories this week. I have listened to the views of women and their experiences and the action they think is needed in society.
Like the issues on race, that were provoked last summer, we need to listen. An abduction and murder of a woman in the street is rare. The issue of violence to women is not nor are deaths at the hands of men. Even more common are the incivilities and behaviours that make women feel unsafe. It is an emotional issue because it is an issue that rightly generates strong emotions!
The action by the police and the criminal justice system is right to be under scrutiny. National prosecutions and convictions on rape are too low. Domestic Violence is work in progress as the scale of the problem has grown.
More has to be and needs to be done. Like all aspects of violence this is however more than the police. The objectification of women by widespread access to pornography and the societal trends behind some of this behaviour is not going to be addressed by resort to law. This is about the normalisation of behaviour women find threatening and how they adapt their freedoms because of this.
Short term I believe we need to be more responsive to threatening behaviour to women. The behaviour that was so often until this week, tolerated by many women, needs to be reported and so we will look to include these acts as part of our Hate Crime reporting in line with other forces. Chief Constables will discuss this next week.
We will work with the current and future Police and Crime Commissioner on the issue of violence against women and girls. I do not know what that plan should be but women in the force and the community will shape it.
Finally in all of this is a family. A family whose daughters name is now owned by many. Whose death will shape change. A family who would give everything for this not to be the case and not to be in this place. They must not be forgotten in this.