An Inquiry report by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Democracy and the Constitution has published a damning criticism of the policing of the Sarah Everard vigil in London and Kill the Bill protests in Bristol.

The police’s reaction to both protests, the report concludes, made disorder more likely and ignored the legal obligation on both the Metropolitan Police and Avon & Somerset Police to facilitate and protect the right to protest.

The report describes how in Bristol, Avon & Somerset Police “failed to distinguish between violent and peaceful protestors, leading to the use of force in unjustified situations”. It highlighted how multiple witnesses described this as “revenge policing”.

Netpol gave detailed evidence to the Inquiry about events in Bristol. The reports concludes that:

  • Protests in the city on three days in the same week in late March “escalated after police undertook enforcement action against peaceful sit-down protests”.
  • At the protest on Friday 23 March in particular, such action was taken either without warning or after giving attendees only “a few seconds” to respond.
  • Avon & Somerset Police “failed to distinguish between the (small minority) engaged in violence and peaceful protestors, journalists, medics, and legal observers. At times medics were prevented from attending to injured people”.
  • The use of force, ranging from the deployment of dogs, batons, and “blading” (using the edge of a riot shield as a weapon) “was often considered disproportionate”.
  • On blading, the report says that “in our view there are instances in which the use of blading during the Bristol events was unjustified, entirely excessive, and may amount to criminal offences against the person”.
  • There is no evidence that Avon & Somerset Police “properly considered or understood the Article 10 and 11 rights” when considering coronavirus restrictions. Indeed, there was no evidence that the force “considered the positive obligation to facilitate a safe and peaceful protest”.
  • Avon & Somerset Police’s engagement with protest participants “was limited to persuading them not to protest, rather than attempting to facilitate a safe and lawful event”.
  • Avon & Somerset Police’s “presumption of illegality” appears to have provoked larger protests and “there is evidence to suggest that [its] approach caused, or at least exacerbated, some of the violence”.

The report adds that the impression of “revenge policing” is “compounded by the excessive measures used by [Avon and Somerset Police] in their investigations of offences allegedly committed during the events of 19-26 March. In particular, we are concerned that police tactics in relation to the wrongful detention of Katie McGoran and Grace Hart. The actions of officers in those situations appear calculated to coerce and intimidate”.

Kate McGoran’s ordeal received national press coverage in April after police officers posed as postal workers to gain entry to her home and then detained her in handcuffs while she was partially undressed and having a panic attack. The same deception was used to gain entry to Grace Hart’s home, where she was threatened with multiple tasers. It subsequently became clear that the police had mistaken both women’s identity.

On events at Clapham Common, the report concludes:

  • It is clear that the Metropolitan Police “began with the assumption that the gathering was unlawful. This was the wrong place to start”.
  • The police’s was wrong to say it had “no obligation to facilitate protest” and that its.duty was to “take reasonable and appropriate measures to enable lawful demonstrations to proceed peacefully, with the participants kept safe.”
  • The Metropolitan Police appeared to have considered “their only options to be “don’t interfere” (the approach for the first six hours) and “intervene to disperse the gathering” (the approach after 18:30). In reality there was a far greater range of options open to MPS, none of which appear to have been thought through”.
  • The police’s failure “to adhere to best practice increased the likelihood of disorder at the event”.

These findings paint a very different picture of both events from the impression the police have subsequently tried to encourage. Throughout the Inquiry report, it is evident its authors have recognised the way operational decisions were guided by the police’s arbitrary, disproportionate public order approach towards the imposition of public health emergency regulations over since the start of the coronavirus crisis.

The report concludes that in both the Clapham and Bristol events, the Metropolitan Police and Avon & Somerset Police “failed to understand the nature of the right to protest and how it must be applied in practice”. It adds:

“the police use of coercive powers appear to have exacerbated tensions and increased the risk of violence. Indeed, in many cases, enforcement of (what the police believed to be) the prohibition on protest may have actually increased the risk to public health”.

This is a vindication of the criticisms that Netpol and participants in the protests made at the time and have continued to make about other protests in Manchester and Cardiff.

It is also a frightening reminder of just how much worse unaccountable public order policing can become under the expansion of police powers proposed by the Police, Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill.

The ‘Inquiry into the Protection of Constitutional Rights at the Clapham Common Vigil and Bristol Protests in March 2021’ heard evidence in April and May. Its report is available here.