The vigil in London for Sarah Everard was taken over by people who wanted a large rally, the UK’s top police officer said on Thursday.
Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick spoke after an independent watchdog cleared the force of wrongdoing after it was criticised for a heavy-handed approach when women were handcuffed and restrained by officers.
The death of Everard sparked an outpouring of grief and dismay at the failure of police and wider society to tackle violence against women and girls.
At a vigil in her memory in the UK capital, which police said broke Covid-19 lockdown rules, officers faced accusations of acting with undue force after women were pinned down and dragged away in handcuffs after the crowd refused orders to disperse.
Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, which independently investigates complaints against the police, found the force was justified in deciding the risks of coronavirus infection “were too great to ignore”.
It said officers “did their best to peacefully disperse the crowd”.
“After reviewing a huge body of evidence – rather than a snapshot on social media – we found that there were some things the Met could have done better, but we saw nothing to suggest police officers acted in anything but a measured and proportionate way in challenging circumstances,” Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary Matt Parr said.
Ms Dick said frontline officers displayed sensitivity despite facing “severe provocation”.
"They were the Met I know – really professional and calm. When you look at the run up to the event and the approach of the gold commanders, that has been described as entirely appropriate," she told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
She said social distancing was initially observed at the vigil, but after several hours, it was no longer Covid-safe.
“We knew some of the people coming were going to want a mass rally where they would come together in large numbers. That part, quite clearly, needed to be dispersed and that’s what the officers did,” she said.
The watchdog said media coverage of the vigil, in which images of women being restrained were beamed around the world, contributed to a “public relations disaster” for police.
But it said officers did their best to end the event peacefully, despite “some extreme and abhorrent abuse”, and there was “nothing to suggest that officers acted inappropriately or in a heavy-handed manner”.
Everard, 33, was reported missing after failing to return to her home in south-west London.
A serving police officer has been charged with her kidnap and murder.
Hundreds of people, including the Duchess of Cambridge, gathered on March 13 at Clapham Common, close to where Everard was last seen alive, to pay their respects.
Scuffles broke out when officers brought the event to a close.
Ms Dick faced calls to resign while London mayor Sadiq Khan, who is responsible for policing in the city, said the officers’ response “was at times neither appropriate nor proportionate”.
The watchdog said such condemnation from public figures “showed a lack of respect for public servants facing a complex situation and undermined public confidence in policing”, but that “a more conciliatory response after the event might have served the Met’s interests better”.
Mr Khan said he accepted the conclusions of the report but said it was “clear that trust and confidence of women and girls in the police and criminal justice system is far from adequate”.
Reclaim These Streets, the group that organised the vigil, said the report was evidence of “institutional sexism running through the force”.
“We warned the Met Police ... that forcing us to cancel would cause additional risk to public safety, as did Lambeth Council. They completely dismissed our warning and concerns,” it said on Twitter.
“This inquiry is not representative of our experience with senior Met officials.”