Enforcement at Brighton vigil for Sarah Everard was ‘last resort’ says police chief

Sussex Police’s chief has explained the force’s handling of a vigil organised to remember Sarah Everard earlier this month.

Police respond to a gathering at Valley Gardens in Brighton
Police respond to a gathering at Valley Gardens in Brighton

The 33-year-old disappeared from South London at the start of March and her body found in Kent woodland a week later. A man has been charged with her murder and kidnap.

Although not on the scale as the huge gathering at Clapham Common, around 150 people are reported to have turned up to the city’s Valley Gardens on Saturday March 13.

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Views have been mixed about Sussex Police’s handling of the situation, and on Friday chief constable Jo Shiner described the ‘precarious balance’ between enforcing the government’s health regulations and on the other hand people’s right to gather in ordinary times to express their views.

Vigil at Valley Gardens in Brighton

Speaking at a performance and accountability meeting, she described being sickened and appalled at Ms Everard’s murder.

She explained that while it was judged to be a vigil at Valley Gardens police took no action, but when a large group was moving together a decision was made to engage with those gathered to encourage them to comply with the regulations and disperse.

Ms Shiner said: “It’s really important to recognise that. And the vast majority did and where you have seen the enforcement action that was taken as a last resort when people refused to engage.

“Even then these matters were dealt with fairly, proportionately and with reasoned discussion away from the scene and off camera.”

She could not criticise any of her front-line officers for what they did, but she ‘completely understood what the perception is’.

But she also added: “Could we and should we have policed that event differently and more sensitively?

“I think on reflection, having listened to all that feedback I think there is a balance that we could have done that and I think it would be wrong of us not to listen to some of those perceptions, but we must balance that with the vast majority of public feedback which actually supported the way in which we policed it.”

She described how both she and Sussex Police were committed to building confidence with women and anyone who feels unsafe to engage with them.

There was ‘learning to be had’ and she was awaiting a final version of an internal review into the policing of the weekend’s events.

But she also acknowledged her officers were not robots but human beings who have ‘really tough and challenging jobs’ something heightened during the pandemic.

She reiterated that while it was a peaceful vigil they took no action, but when it moved into more of a protest with some ‘offensive’ chanting towards officers ‘that moved it into different ground’.

She added: “That’s why that enforcement was taken that was proportionate and the right thing to do.”

Around six vigils took place across the county, resulting in only two arrests and nine fixed penalty notices issued in total.

For Ms Shiner this demonstrated the ‘balance, tolerance, patience and professionalism that our officers and front-line colleagues have shown in the face of an incredibly difficult week’.

She finished off by pointing out that deploying resources at such events meant they were taking time away from officers to investigate crimes elsewhere.

She also described how some of the ‘quite vitriolic’ chanting outside the Brighton police station on Sunday had impacted the staff and officers based there.