West Midlands ‘Top Cop’ calls for law change on protests

Wednesday, 17th March 2021

THE region’s top cop has called for a swift change in law on public protests being held in lockdown in wake of the Sarah Everard murder.

The Metropolitan Police Service has received fierce criticism for the way it dealt with a vigil held at Clapham Common on Saturday night in which women were seen being grabbed and taken away in handcuffs.

But West Midlands Police chief constable Dave Thompson said parliament needed to act quickly to clarify the law as restrictions are lifted.

At a Strategic Policing and Crime Board meeting on Tuesday (March 16), he said: “I make no comment on the Met’s response at Clapham Common.

“I do however think Parliament needs to review the regulations concerning public assembly under Covid so they are quickly realigned with the freedoms expected in the country on protests.

“This cannot wait until June. Much emphasis has been placed on police discretion to navigate these matters and I think this has been conducted by police, in the main, responsibly.

“However, the law needs realigning quickly and irreversibly as we move out of the acute phase of the pandemic.”

He added: “The police cannot work with organisers to facilitate a gathering that is unlawful under the Covid legislation. It would be a very serious breach of our role.

“I believe the people who believe the police should have done this at the weekend are wrong.

“The rules have varied during the pandemic but are very clear and parliament have restricted gatherings to prevent infections of Covid.

“We advised local groups in the West Midlands that we couldn’t do this which led to events being cancelled in Coventry and Birmingham and this was responsible by organisers this time given the crisis.

“However when feelings are high – whether it’s a vigil on women’s safety, a Black Lives Matter protest, a Kisan farmer’s rally or a Rangers’ title win as we have seen over the last months – people will still choose to gather and they will all feel they have a good reason for this.

“When this happens, this leads 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 under the law.

“The police cannot and should not be expected to make choices based upon the merits of individual events because all gatherings pose the same infection risk.

“The choices we make are increasingly judged by public opinion. We’re challenged for being either ‘woke’ or ‘over tolerant’ or cracking down too hard.

“It’s difficult to get this right in everyone’s eyes as people bring their own views and values to the merits of each case.”

Mr Thompson added chief constables from all forces were meeting to discuss how they respond on tackling violence against women.

And he said he is also working with the Police and Crime Commissioner on developing a plan on the issue, which he wants shaped by women on the force and in the community.

He said: “Not every woman has experienced domestic abuse or rape. Every woman has experienced some form of sexual harassment or unwanted attention or behaviour that has made them feel unsafe.

“Like issues on race, which was provoked last summer, we need to listen now as a police service.

“An abduction and murder of a woman on the street is rare. The issue of violence to women is not nor are the deaths at the hands of men.

“The actions by the police and criminal justice system are right to be under scrutiny. National prosecutions and convictions of rape are too low, domestic violence is a work in progress as the scale of the problem has grown.

“More has to be and needs to be done. And like all aspects of violence, this is more than the police to deal with.

“The objectification of women by widespread access to pornography and societal trends behind some of this behaviour is not going to be addressed by resort to law.

“This is about the normalisation of behaviour that women find threatening and how they adapt their freedoms because of this.”