Yorkshire's police forces respond to criticism of pandemic policing following Sarah Everard vigil

Yorkshire's four police forces have responded to criticisms of policing during the Covid-19 pandemic after questions were raised over how officers interact with the public during lockdown protests.

Metropolitan Police chief Dame Cressida Dick has faced questions over the force's handling of a vigil, which saw police officers clash with crowds gathered to remember 33-year-old marketing executive Sarah Everard, who was allegedly kidnapped and murdered while walking home on March 3.

Wayne Couzens, a serving Metropolitan Police officer has been charged with the murder and kidnap of Ms Everard, who is originally from York.

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The clashes between police and crowds at the vigil in Clapham Common on Saturday evening, have prompted reaction from forces across the country with representatives speaking of the "impossible situations" officers face when trying to protect the public during a pandemic.

Demonstrators during a Reclaim the Streets protest, Parliament Square, central London, in memory of Sarah Everard who went missing while walking home from a friend's flat on March 3.

The escalation of events on Saturday resulted in 26 Metropolitan police officers being assaulted.

The Yorkshire Post approached all four of the county's police forces following the scenes witnessed over the weekend.

Here is what each had to say:

NORTH YORKSHIRE POLICE

Around 150 to 200 people attended a candlelit vigil outside York Minster on Saturday in memory of Ms Everard, with no enforcement action taken by police.

A force spokeswoman said: "Officers allowed people to lay flowers whilst ensuring that the gathering took place in a safe and lawful way. No enforcement action was taken against anyone in attendance and most people had left the area by around 6.30pm.

“Our thoughts are with Sarah’s loved ones at this very sad time.”

Rob Knowles, Chair of the North Yorkshire Police Federation said forces have the difficult task of balancing the rights of individuals to pay respects with the need to protect the public.

He also believes frontline officers have become the "pawns of a political situation".

Mr Knowles said: "This is deeply upsetting crime which has stimulated a wider debate around the safety of women in public spaces and violence against women and girls, which we condemn.

"The concerns expressed about the police attendance at the vigil for Sarah Everard has highlighted the complexity of policing in the current climate when the rights of individuals to pay their respects, have to be balanced with that of protecting the public from an escalating situation and enforcing the law.

"Policing during lockdown is often a no-win situation for police officers trying to protect the public; with criticism being levelled at the if they take action and if they don’t.

“It appears that front-line officers have become pawns in a political situation."

Mr Knowles also called for clarity from the Government around Covid-19 regulations to avoid further confusion over laws and rules when lockdown measures are lifted.

SOUTH YORKSHIRE POLICE

Around 200 people visited Devonshire Green in Sheffield on Saturday evening to pay their respects to Ms Everard. A formal vigil originally planned that evening was cancelled due to lockdown restrictions, but South Yorkshire Police said they were prepared for some people to still attend.

Temporary Chief Superintendent Shelley Hemsley said: "Although the formal vigil was cancelled, we expected a number of people would still attend to mark this solemn occasion, so a small policing operation involving the City Centre Neighbourhood Policing Team was put in place to ensure the safety of those attending.

"We saw numbers at their peak around 6pm, however those who attended maintained social distancing with people leaving flowers or lighting a candle, before moving on.

"Police maintained a discreet presence at the event, which passed peacefully without incident.

"We understand the feeling among the community remains high, and people may continue to want to pay their respects or make their voices heard on the issue of women’s safety. The force remains committed to engaging with organisers of events to explain the current rules and urge people to remain at home, under the current restrictions.

“While cases in South Yorkshire continue to fall, it is imperative we work together to continue to protect our communities from Covid.”

Chairman of the South Yorkshire Police Federation Steve Kent said he has frequently warned and foreseen that the police will end up being "blamed and lambasted" for either policing the lockdown too leniently or too harshly,

Mr Kent said: "The police in London and across the country are following the legal position as outlined by a democratically elected Parliament and clarified by the High Court and have little choice in enforcing the same Covid guidelines we frequently unfairly get lambasted for not enforcing.

"The politicians in this country need to make themselves aware of all the facts before rushing to judgement and making statements, and attempting to be populist at such a sensitive time.

"They should instead support the police officers who they have put in this impossible position in the first place.

"The thoughts of all in South Yorkshire Police Federation remain with the family and friends of Sarah Everard."

WEST YORKSHIRE POLICE

A number of police officers took to social media over the weekend to express their upset and frustration following comments by members of the public after the clashes in London.

A PCSO based in Bradford said on Twitter: "I’m weary after a long shift dealing with violent disorder all over the city. I’m also weary after reading comments slamming the police. We work so hard trying to protect people. I’ve been stabbed whilst protecting the public so please think twice before you criticise us. Thanks."

Yorkshire's largest force said it condemns violence towards any members of its communities.

A force spokesman said: "We understand the genuine safety concerns that women have, concerns which have been amplified following the recent tragic death of Sarah Everard.

"Women should always feel safe to walk the streets of West Yorkshire and we remain committed to making the county a safe place to live and work for everyone.

"It is entirely normal that the public wish to express their solidarity and concern in these circumstances.

"However, the threat from Coronavirus remains and any large gathering is a real risk to individuals’ health. Throughout this pandemic, West Yorkshire Police has sought to encourage and explain to the public, in order to keep them safe, rather than move to enforcement. Although that always remains an option where we feel it necessary and appropriate.

"We understand how important the issue of tackling violence against women is and that women want to make their voices heard, but we would ask everyone to consider the current risk to their own health and think about attending public events at a later date, when it is both safe and legal to do so."

HUMBERSIDE POLICE

Temporary Assistant Chief Constable Darren Downs said the force understands the desire for people to come together to express their feelings and wider concerns for the protection of women, adding that the alleged murder of Ms Everard had resounded deeply with people across the country.

Mr Downs said: "We will continue to work with local organisers to consider how appropriate events can take place whilst adhering to current lockdown restrictions. This includes for example, looking at alternative ways of people coming together to express their sorrow and worries and having vigils.

"From a policing perspective, our priority is at all times to keep people safe and we know that the vast majority of the public both understands and supports our endeavours to do this, and during the lockdown have provided us with a fantastic level of support and understanding.

"We in turn thank them for this continued support, whilst the restrictions remain in place, ensuring everyone’s safety.

"Our stance will continue as it has done throughout the Covid pandemic in that we will take every opportunity to engage, explain and educate, where that is felt to be the appropriate course of action. As always, enforcement remains a last option, but it is one we will use if necessary and when there is a clear risk to public health. It is important that we do not overlook public safety, especially at times of high emotion and balance that with the needs of the community to express their feelings. I am sure you will all appreciate this and continue to behave responsibly and in line with our current restrictions."