The Metropolitan Police: Profiles in Cowardice

Photo of Kevin Donoghue, a solicitor who considers how the Metropolitan Police handled the Sarah Everard vigil.

Kevin Donoghue considers how senior officers at the Metropolitan Police handled the Sarah Everard vigil.

By Kevin Donoghue, solicitor

In 1957, then Senator John F Kennedy won the Pulitzer Prize for “Profiles in Courage”. His book told the stories of eight American senators in mid-19th century America. All the men profiled sacrificed political and public support to do what was right, often at the expense of their own careers.

The Kennedy family later created the Profile in Courage Award to recognize those who made decisions which put conscience ahead of popular and/or political opinion. Winners include:

  • the “Peacemakers of Northern Ireland”, for the “extraordinary political courage they demonstrated” to create the Good Friday Agreement
  • Gabrielle Giffords, “in recognition of the political, personal, and physical courage she has demonstrated in her fearless public advocacy for policy reforms aimed at reducing gun violence.” Ms Giffords survived an assassination attempt by a gunman which left her with a severe brain injury. Despite this, she continues to campaign for gun control
  • Gerald Ford, 38th President, who pardoned his predecessor Richard Nixon, a move which arguably resulted in him losing the 1976 election.

Would today’s leaders in the Metropolitan Police Service merit a place in Kennedy’s book or receive the family’s Award?

Metropolitan Police Handling of the #ReclaimTheseStreets Vigil

Consider the police’s handling of the Sarah Everard #ReclaimTheseStreets vigil last weekend. As you may already know, Ms Everard went missing after walking home from a friend’s house in South London on 3 March. It is alleged that Sarah was kidnapped and killed by Wayne Couzens, a serving Metropolitan Police officer and member of the Force’s armed Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection Command.

On Saturday 13 March, hundreds of women attended a #ReclaimTheseStreets vigil at Clapham Common, near where Sarah was last seen.

The vigil was a peaceful expression of collective grief and a mark of solidarity for women who sought safety from male violence. Even Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, showed up.

#ReclaimTheseStreets Vigil Broken Up by Metropolitan Police

The peaceful day turned ugly when the Metropolitan Police forcibly shut the vigil down by arresting people including Patsy Stevenson, whose photo went viral on social media.

The Force took this step after, according to Assistant Commissioner Helen Ball, “a small minority of people began chanting at officers, pushing and throwing items”.

Politicians, the public, and media were rightly appalled by the Metropolitan Police’s handling of this peaceful protest.

Here was an opportunity for senior police officers in the Metropolitan Police to show leadership, courage, and empathy of the kind found in Profiles in Courage. But did they?

What Senior Metropolitan Police Officers Said About the #ReclaimTheseStreets Vigil

Consider the highlighted parts of the statement from Assistant Commissioner Ball, which I quote in full below:

Statement from Assistant Commissioner Helen Ball following events in Clapham Common:

“May I start by extending my deepest condolences to the family and friends of Sarah Everard. Across the Met we are still extremely saddened and shocked by the tragic circumstance of her disappearance and death.

“Earlier tonight, I joined the Commissioner in a candlelit vigil outside New Scotland Yard. I know many thousands of people up and down the nation also held similar vigils in Sarah’s name.

“I recognise that the decision by the organisers to cancel the Reclaim These Streets vigil in Clapham Common was deeply unwelcome news. Even so, given the ever present threat of Coronavirus, this was the right decision to make.

“Today, for over six hours hundreds of people came to lay flowers and pay their respects to Sarah in Clapham Common in a safe and lawful way.

“Around 6pm, more people began to gather close to the bandstand within the Common. Some started to make speeches from the bandstand. These speeches then attracted more people to gather closer together.

“At this point, officers on the ground were faced with a very difficult decision. Hundreds of people were packed tightly together, posing a very real risk of easily transmitting Covid-19.

“Police must act for people’s safety, this is the only responsible thing to do. The pandemic is not over and gatherings of people from right across London and beyond, are still not safe.

“Those who gathered were spoken to by officers on a number of occasions and over an extended period of time. We repeatedly encouraged those who were there to comply with the law and leave. Regrettably, a small minority of people began chanting at officers, pushing and throwing items.

“After speaking with officers, the vast majority of people quickly left. Four arrests have been made for public order offences and for breaches of the Health Protection Regulations.

“Part of the reason I am speaking to you tonight is because we accept that the actions of our officers have been questioned.

“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.

“Let me end by saying that across the Met, we review every single event that we police to see if there are lessons that can be learnt. This one will be no different.”

(my emphasis in bold)

This mealy-mouthed statement puts the blame on the women protesters, not the police. This is extremely problematic given that the women were coming together to mourn the loss of another woman who was allegedly killed by a male Metropolitan Police officer. In effect:

  • you started it
  • we had no choice but to finish it
  • don’t bother holding us accountable. That’s the police’s job, not yours.

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick’s Statement in Support

Cressida Dick, the Met’s Commissioner and most senior officer, backed this approach in an official statement and subsequent interview. She said:

Commissioner’s statement following vigil on Clapham Common

Speaking this afternoon [Sunday, 14th March] the Commissioner Cressida Dick, said: “I wouldn’t have wanted to see a vigil in memory of Sarah end with those scenes.

“I fully understand the strength of feeling, I think, as a woman, and hearing from people about their experiences in the past and what they feel about what happened to her and what has been going on, I understand why so many people wanted to come and pay their respects, and make a statement about this.

The Commissioner also highlighted the difficulty faced by officers and that she welcomed a review.

She said: “This is fiendishly difficult policing, but I’m sure for the people who wanted to express their feelings, that was a difficult situation for them and that’s why it needs a cold light of day, sober, review, and I think we’re all agreed on that.”

Defending her officers, Commissioner Dick said:

“They have to make these really difficult calls and I don’t think anybody should be sitting back in an armchair and saying, ‘Well, that was done badly’ or ‘I would’ve done it differently’ without actually understanding what was going through their minds.”

(my emphasis in bold)

In effect:

  • you don’t understand what we have to deal with
  • don’t question our methods
  • we’ll deal with it later, so don’t bother holding us to account.

Problematic Language Used by the Police

Both statements reflect language which abuse victims will recognise.

In my experience as a solicitor who represents innocent victims of police misconduct, including many sexual abuse cases involving the police, the statements echo my dealings with the Metropolitan Police Service.

I have never, in my more-than-20 years of suing the Metropolitan Police, seen them admit liability without a fight. The Met’s policy appears to be to deny liability for every case where police misconduct is alleged. Even where claims are settled, the Met is extremely reluctant to apologise and admit wrongdoing.

The Force’s officers know this. The stance taken by senior officers in this episode will only embolden them. Officers can act with impunity, knowing that their so-called “leaders” have got their backs.

The Police Federation, the police officers’ union which represents more than 130,000 rank-and-file officers, follows this approach too. Look at how this statement from the Chairman of the Police Federation seeks to shift the blame away from the police:

26 Officers Assaulted – Metropolitan Police Federation Statement

Ken Marsh, Chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation said: “26 Metropolitan Police officers were assaulted – punched, kicked, spat at – yesterday policing Covid-19 lockdown laws that a democratically elected Government have imposed… laws that the Mayor of London has called on us to enforce to keep Londoners safe.

Now colleagues are being condemned by politicians of all parties for doing what we have been asked to do by politicians on behalf of society. This is not right or fair. Damned if we do. Damned if we don’t. Are we supposed to enforce Covid-19 Regulations or not?

“Political leaders should be doing much more to support the police officers they have put in this impossible position.

“The thoughts of the Metropolitan Police Federation remain with the family and friends of Sarah Everard.”

(my emphasis in bold)

In effect:

  • you started this
  • you made us do it
  • we’re the victims here.

How Metropolitan Police Officers Ignore Peel’s Principles

I previously wrote about Cressida Dick’s appointment as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. I asked if she would uphold Sir Robert Peel’s Nine Principles of Policing, which include:

  1. To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment.
  2. To recognise always that the power of the police to fulfil their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.
  3. To recognise always that to secure and maintain the respect and approval of the public means also the securing of the willing co-operation of the public in the task of securing observance of laws.
  4. To recognise always that the extent to which the co-operation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.
  5. To seek and preserve public favour, not by pandering to public opinion; but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws, by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing, by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humour; and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.
  6. To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public co-operation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order, and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.
  7. To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
  8. To recognise always the need for strict adherence to police-executive functions, and to refrain from even seeming to usurp the powers of the judiciary of avenging individuals or the State, and of authoritatively judging guilt and punishing the guilty.
  9. To recognise always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.

(my emphasis in bold)

It appears that, if this weekend’s events are anything to go by, Peel’s Principles are not front-of-mind at the Met.

Failed Leadership at the Metropolitan Police Service

Commissioner Dick and Assistant Commissioner Ball missed an opportunity to put Peel’s Principles of Policing into action. They could, and should, have:

  1. apologised for the Met’s mishandling of the vigil
  2. readily accepted responsibility
  3. invited outside accountability for the police’s actions and any misconduct.

No doubt this would require courage. But it would have sent a clear and powerful message from the top about how the Force sees its role and what is expected of rank-and-file officers. As the biggest police force in the UK, it could have led to changes at other forces too.

Sadly, their responses were lacking. The Commissioner and Assistant Commissioner should not expect a call from the Kennedy family any time soon.

Kevin Donoghue is a solicitor who specialises in civil actions against the police.


Since writing this blog post Sir Stephen House, the deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police has also spoken about the police’s handling of Sarah Everard vigil.

The Guardian reports that he said:

“We do not underestimate the upset that has been caused, but the officers took their actions believing they were doing the right thing to protect people’s health. I’m sorry, of course, that people are so upset at seeing officers enforcing legislation. But the officers were doing their duty as they saw it, and I will not second-guess that at this moment in time.”

(my emphasis in bold)

There it is again. A non-apology from a senior officer at the Met, just like those offered by Assistant Commissioner Ball who said:

“we accept that the actions of our officers have been questioned…”

and Commissioner Cressida Dick, who noted that:

“I’m sure for the people who wanted to express their feelings, that was a difficult situation for them…”

When it comes to victim-blaming, deflection, and attempts to avoid accountability, the Met’s senior officers are second-to-none.